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Local groups demand stronger COVID precautions for agricultural workers

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For agricultural workers, it’s impossible to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. And as dozens of workers at an East Wenatchee orchard tested positive, many of these essential employees fear that current working conditions will not keep them safe from the virus.

Two unions filed a lawsuit in Skagit County Superior Court on April 16 to get the state to set specific rules for employers. The Department of Labor and Industries released a set of mandates and suggestions for agriculture workers and warehouses on the same day, and will expand this list to include housing and transportation safety precautions Friday.

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The current list requires employers to maintain social distancing when possible, and take alternative measures (such as the use of masks) when distancing is not possible; provide hand washing facilities; frequently disinfect surfaces; ensure sick employees stay home; and educate employees in their first language about coronavirus.

“Our first goal is 6 feet apart — we know that isn’t always going to work, so we have some alternatives,” said Tim Church, L&I public affairs manager. “And we’re encouraging workplaces to come up with some creative alternatives.”

Nina Martinez, board chair of the statewide advocacy group Latino Civic Alliance, believes the measures laid out in L&I’s documents are not strong enough to protect agricultural workers, and do not include a plan for enforcement in the event that a company does not obey.

“We understand that, like in every industry, there are good employers and there are employers who don’t always comply, and that is why we want the state to enforce these standards so that they have teeth,” she said. “It helps the workers feel like they’re going to a place that’s protecting them, where they’re not going to get sick.”

As an example, the Latino Civic Alliance has heard that in some cases, workers are not being given personal protective equipment. In the L&I document, PPE is mandated only when social distancing is not possible.

“We have people reporting that in these warehouses, the management are using masks, but others are not, the workers are not,” Martinez said. “They’re being given bandannas, but they’re not being given masks or gloves.”

Every single time a person calls L&I with concerns about an employer, the department marks it as an official complaint, Church explained. Each complaint is looked into, and he encourages any worker concerned for their well-being to call.

“We want to know if there’s a serious health and safety complaint,” Church said.

L&I’s response can range from a phone call with the employer in question to come up with a worker safety plan, to an on-site inspection or the issuance of a citation, depending on the nature of the complaint and the level of compliance received.

“We are doing inspections all the time,” Church said. “We have staff all around the state, and we have received a number of complaints related to coronavirus.”

Martinez is also concerned because many agricultural workers do not have health insurance, as this industry is exempt from having to provide workers with benefits such as health care and sick leave. As a result, she said, farm workers often are afraid to miss work when they’re sick and may not get the help they need.

“They’re not secure, so what happens is that a lot of times they may be forced to feel like they have to go to work because that’s the only income they have,” she said.

She also noted that when workers live on site, they are often packed into tight quarters.

“It’s going to be really hard for these individuals, these workers, to [implement] social distancing,” she said. “That’s a challenge. So I’m happy to hear that there’s going to be some housing enforcement, but the reality is, the housing provided is so small that it’s going to be challenging.”

In L&I’s draft on housing regulations, beds are to be kept 6 feet apart or separated by a non-permeable shield, such as Plexiglas. Top bunks are not to be slept in, unless the bunk bed is occupied by family members, all surfaces must be disinfected regularly, and sick individuals must be completely isolated.

“We’re really trying to find that place that allows the work to get done, but still protects these workers as much as we possibly can,” Church said.

The Latino Civic Alliance hopes for a collaboration between L&I, the Washington State Employment Security Department, and the Washington State Department of Health to provide COVID tests and health care to workers, and to aid in setting up safety precautions for employers.

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After all, as Martinez pointed out, without agriculture workers, Washingtonians lose access to nutritious produce.

“We consider [agriculture] workers like first responders,” she said. “They need protection like our health care workers and police officers. They’re the ones harvesting our food.”

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