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Farmworkers Unions Sue Washington State Over Lack of Adequate COVID-19 Protections

The lawsuit claims safety guidelines to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus are “garbled and non-mandatory”

A worker unloads a truck full of lettuce on a farm.
Farmworkers in Central Washington often work without personal protective gear and live in cramped quarters.
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As many in Washington look for signs that the COVID-19 outbreak is slowing, some working in the food supply chain feel as vulnerable as ever — and are taking action. On Thursday, several labor organizations, including Familias Unidas por la Justicia and the United Farm Workers, filed a lawsuit in Skagit County, urging Washington officials to immediately update its health and safety standards to protect agriculture workers.

Farms have been deemed essential businesses during Washington’s stay-at-home order, but the lawsuit claims safety guidelines to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus are “garbled and non-mandatory,” endangering the lives of many. For instance, a March 23 update to the temporary worker housing guidelines suggested that those sick with coronavirus could be placed on one side of the same room as uninfected workers.

This lawsuit was filed just a few days after a report in the Seattle Times raised alarms about practices at several farms and warehouses in Central Washington, where workers have labored in close proximity, and sanitization measures seem haphazard. Crews at one particular farm in the Yakima Valley allegedly had to bring their own soap and water from home, and workstations at some warehouses — where workers don’t have gloves or masks — are not set six feet apart. Yakima County now has more than 440 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a rate higher than in the Puget Sound area this month. Skagit County — where the lawsuit was filed — has 218 confirmed cases.

“Nothing in the law states that farms have to implement social distancing for their workers,” Erik Nicholson, a national vice president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), tells Eater Seattle. “The rules are a patchwork effort.”

“We are aware of this issue and the office has been working with stakeholders on it before the suit was filed,” Gov. Jay Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk, said. “Our efforts continue.”

As the growing season ramps up, farms will continue to have an influx of workers, with few places to put them. According to Nicholson, more than 25,000 will arrive from Mexico and other countries with temporary visas. “They are going to be living in employer-owned housing, bunking in close quarters, and traveling back and forth to farms in cramped busses,” he says.

Civil Eats also recently published a report about this issue, noting that Washington isn’t alone in falling short of providing protections — farmworkers in California and Oregon are among those on the frontlines with few protections against the coronavirus. As that piece notes, a recent poll conducted by UFW on its Spanish-language social media platform showed more than 90 percent of the farmworkers who responded had not been advised by their employers on best practices to resist the virus, and many had been given no information at all.

But this is the first time that organized legal action has been taken to address these issues within the West Coast agriculture industry during the pandemic. Farmworkers need clear, specific, enforceable protections from COVID, and they needed them weeks ago, when we first started asking [Gov. Inslee] for help,” said Andrea Schmitt, attorney and advocate from Columbia Legal Services, one of the firms that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the unions. “The state has to act decisively to protect the workers who bring us our food — and the communities where they live.”

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