Jan 14, 2021
COVID-19 emergency rules spur response from Washington ag groups

As farmers across Washington state prepare for the first wave of nearly 15,000 guest workers to arrive in the first quarter of 2021, leading agricultural groups are appealing recently renewed state COVID-19 emergency rules to Gov. Jay Inslee they say are triggering a labor shortage that could force many out of business.

According to a news release, agricultural groups representing thousands of Washington farmers say the state needs to prioritize testing and vaccinations and use best science in recently updated COVID emergency temporary rules being implemented by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and Department and Labor and Industries (L&I). Farm leaders say the renewed rules are placing the state’s billion-dollar agricultural industry at risk by creating uncertainty and limiting labor contracts now that will have devastating financial impacts on farmers during the season ahead.

Farmers cannot stay in business if they can only employ and house half their workforce even after they are vaccinated.

“Farmers have struggled during the COVID pandemic and endured crippling business restrictions,” said John Stuhlmiller, chief executive officer of Washington Farm Bureau. “But labor rules being made now mean many won’t make it another growing season unless the state prioritizes farm worker vaccinations. We all share the same goal: protecting farm worker health while keeping our farmers in business. The governor’s leadership is needed before it’s too late.”

Due to a chronic labor shortage, each year approximately 25,000 guest workers are temporarily employed by hundreds of farms throughout the state for the growing season and then return to their home countries as part of the H2-A guest worker program. Farmers pay prevailing wages and provide licensed and inspected housing, transportation and personal protective equipment for these vital workers. Farmers had agreed to test them upon arrival to the congregate housing facilities, and in exchange request that these workers receive a priority for vaccinations.

Despite the arrival of vaccines and the willingness of farmers to embrace best practices like this, on Jan 8 the DOH and L & I automatically renewed emergency farm worker rules for the third time with minimal changes from when emergency rules were first adopted last spring. Specifically, there is no mention of vaccinations. The regulations essentially limit farmworker housing facilities to 50 percent occupancy – even after all workers receive vaccinations—unless the farmer adopts a cumbersome group shelter designation that is limited to 15 workers.

The governor has seven business days to consider the farm groups’ appeal and take action on the regulations.

Dan Fazio, executive director of wafla, echoed Stuhlmiller sentiments. “Now that vaccines are here, we need the state’s leadership to put our farmers on a path to recovery instead of tripling down on the same, pre-vaccine approach. A regulation that does not permit full housing occupancy once occupants have been vaccinated doesn’t make sense and is economically ruinous for farmers.”

A New Approach for Farm Recovery

The farm groups say the state needs to stop rolling over the same emergency regulations that overlook vaccines and new science and apply a new approach that recognizes widespread farm worker testing and immunization. This is the most viable path to worker safety and farm recovery. They are requesting the governor update the rules to focus on ramping up vaccine deployment and apply current science and best practices learned to reduce risks while they are being administered.

Background on farmers’ appeal of state’s renewed emergency regulations

The farm groups are appealing for Gov. Inslee to make critically needed changes to the new emergency regulations:

●        Testing

Farmers have committed to test and quarantine workers on arrival. Employers are working with DOH and testing providers to implement a program where operators of housing facilities test all occupants on arrival.  Protocols are being established to isolate workers who show symptoms or return a positive test. Once tested, workers at congregate housing facilities should be quarantined as much as possible, and visitors should be prohibited, until workers receive a vaccination.

●        Vaccination prioritization

The first link in our food supply chain is the farmworker. It is especially crucial that farmworkers living in farm-provided congregate housing facilities be provided a free priority on vaccination led by the state. Once a worker has arrived at a housing facility and been tested, they should immediately be scheduled for vaccination.

●        Recovery

The new rules treat every farmer the same and do not provide an offramp for farmers to move to economic recovery. They need to be updated to ensure farmers can go from pandemic restrictions to normal operations by ending the emergency rule when 100 percent of workers in a farm congregate housing facility are vaccinated.

●        Use best science and practices

The science and understanding of COVID transmission has improved greatly since the emergency rules were first enacted in May 2020, yet the latest regulation doesn’t incorporate these advances by restricting congregate housing. Research shows case numbers are higher in the community than when workers are able to isolate on farms. Limiting housing on farms has pushed thousands of farm workers to seek shelter in unregulated housing, increasing their exposure to the virus. The state should reconsider these restrictions in light of this new science and learnings.


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