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Washington Farmers Suing Over Virus Rules for Migrant Workers

2021-02-04 15:38:01
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Two farmer groups have sued Washington state for failing to review emergency regulations to protect migrant farm workers from the COVID-19 virus.

The groups filed suit this week in Yakima County Superior Court. It tries to invalidate the recently revamped rules as arbitrary, erratic and unfeasible.

“We are disappointed that we had to take this step, but our farms are at stake and we had no choice,” said John Stuhlmiller, CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau.

The State Department of Health renewed the emergency rules, first passed last spring, for a third time on Jan. 8. In addition, last month Governor Jay Inslee rejected the two groups' request to repeal and revise the rules.

The Ministry of Health said COVID-19 "has had a significant and disproportionate impact on agricultural workers in particular."

The agency said the emergency regulations have led to testing clinics in agricultural communities "that have helped prevent the further spread of COVID-19 among agricultural workers."

"As the response continues, we are reviewing emergency rules to identify any clinical changes," the agency said.

The lawsuit, against the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor and Industry, argues that many of the state's emergency measures are unworkable for farmers. The state has made adjustments for other industries, including schools and construction, that include a better understanding of COVID-19 transmission and best practices. But the rules for migrant farm workers have remained the same.

From the spring onwards, tens of thousands of migrant farm workers toil in the fields in Washington to harvest crops such as apples, cherries, hops, grapes and asparagus.

The United Farm Workers union, which pushed for the emergency rules last year, will work to defend them, said the union's Elizabeth Strater.

"Given that vaccination programs are not yet operating at scale and would be taken twice a month to provide protection, this is not a viable alternative to safe COVID-19 housing protocols," she said. "Eliminating or ignoring ground rules for COVID-19 will infect and kill employees."

One point of contention is the state's requirement for farmers to make twice-daily medical visits to farm workers with COVID-19 symptoms. Healthcare professionals in rural and isolated communities, who are currently being called upon to administer vaccinations, are unable to provide this level of care, the lawsuit said.

No other industry has this requirement, the plaintiffs said.

“We want farm workers to get the medical care they need. But doctors – not the state – should steer the right level of care, ”Stuhlmiller said.

The lawsuit also stated that:

  • Requiring 20 minutes of access to emergency services and one hour of access to a ventilator with a ventilator is largely impossible in many rural and isolated areas.
  • Limiting the occupation of registered housing for farm workers, even after workers have been vaccinated, is not based on science and is economically disastrous for farmers by limiting their workforce to 50 percent. “Farmers cannot stay in business if they can only employ and house half of their workforce even after they have been vaccinated,” said prosecutor Dan Fazio, executive director of wafla, which represents employers of seasonal workers across the country.

According to the lawsuit, farmers face severe financial penalties for failing to comply with these regulations.

This year, approximately 25,000 guest workers will arrive in Washington State to harvest crops and then return to their homelands as part of the annual H-2A guest worker program.

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