On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation meant to address COVID-19 concerns in Washington’s agriculture industry, specifically when it comes to the region’s farmworkers. Among the new announced standards: employers must provide four times as many handwashing stations on work sites, supply masks for employees who aren’t working alone at no cost to workers, and improve transportation safety by sanitizing vehicles properly and promoting social distancing. Violations of the order can result in fines of up to $7,000, depending on the situation.
The new proclamation also requires growers to educate workers on how COVID-19 spreads and on their rights in the workplace, including how to report any infractions that jeopardize their health. A poll conducted in March by the United Farm Workers union 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.
Safety among farm workers in Washington has become a hot button issue in recent weeks, especially with the coming harvest season. In April, several labor organizations filed a lawsuit in Skagit County, urging Washington officials to immediately update its health and safety standards to protect agriculture workers. At the time, a report in the Seattle Times raised alarms about practices at several farms and warehouses in Central Washington, where workers labored in close proximity and sanitization measures seemed haphazard.
This month, hundreds of apple-packing workers in Yakima County went on strike to demand safer working conditions and hazard pay. A similar action carried over to the statehouse in Olympia earlier this week, where farm and food processing workers urged lawmakers to take action. Yakima County currently has seen more than 3,008 confirmed coronavirus cases and 91 deaths, and has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the state.
Though there had already been some general guidelines in place for agriculture workers since Inslee’s stay-at-home order was implemented in mid-March, this announcement creates a few new requirements (such as face coverings) and more specificity when it comes to social distancing and transportation safety. It also emphasized the need for more testing, which has been a key to the state’s strategy on reopening.
As more counties progress in Washington’s four-phased reopening plan, the number of cases among farm workers in rural areas will bear close watching.