Washington Gov. Jay Inslee won’t repeal emergency farmworker housing rules, leading two farm groups to contemplate suing. The groups claim the rules could be revised to benefit both employers and workers.

Inslee formally rejected a petition from the Washington Farm Bureau and labor supplier WAFLA asking for new COVID-related rules.

The emergency rules, set in May, are still necessary, according to Inslee, who said farmworkers living together are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I am unaware of evidence demonstrating that the risk of COVID transmission in agricultural settings will dissipate before widespread vaccinations,” Inslee stated in a letter to the farm groups.

The emergency rules reduced the number of workers that could live and travel together. The Farm Bureau and WAFLA argue the state should have made a more careful review by now and come up with rules that take into account the possibility that workers will be vaccinated by spring.

The state Department of Labor and Industries announced in September that it was working on permanent rules, but has not proposed any or offered any timeline for a proposal.

“How could you not write rules in nine months?” Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller asked Jan. 22. “Government is supposed to be able to be thoughtful in advance.”

The groups will likely sue, Stuhlmiller said. “The only option left is to challenge it legally,” he said.

WAFLA executive director Dan Fazio said he was disappointed but not surprised by the denial.

Farms are prepared to test workers, but need help isolating them from outside contact until vaccinations are available, Fazio said.

The current emergency housing rules allow community organizers to visit farmworker housing. Farms can’t quarantine workers until one shows COVID symptoms.

The risk of infection will increase as guestworkers arrive in Washington, Fazio said.

“Workers are going to get here and very likely are going to go visit friends and relatives, where people maybe aren’t following the rules,” Fazio said.

“This is very serious,” he said. “We need support on this. I don’t want to be here on Feb. 15 telling the governor, ‘I told you so.’”

The Inslee administration recently made all farmworkers, not just those older than 50, eligible for vaccinations when the state moves into the next stage of a multi-phase inoculation plan.

The move put farmworkers in the same phase as firefighters, police officers, teachers and other workers deemed “essential” and who have extensive contact with co-workers or customers.

Still, vaccinations for farmworkers appear to be at least several weeks away, maybe months.

The state plans to first immunize health-care workers, nursing home residents, people over 65 and people over 50 who live with younger or older generations.

”I absolutely think farmworkers in congregate farmworker housing are (facing) at least as much risk as people over 50 who live in multi-generational housing,” Fazio said.

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