Farmworker housing lawsuit

Farmworker housing in Washington state. The Washington Farm Bureau and WAFLA are suing the Inslee administration to invalidate COVID-related emergency housing rules.

The Inslee administration has abused its powers by sticking with emergency farmworker housing rules, ignoring the fact that workers are being vaccinated for COVID, farm groups claim in a court filing.

The Washington Farm Bureau and Walfa, a supplier of foreign farmworkers, petitioned Yakima Superior Court on April 2 to toss out the 11-month-old rules. A hearing is set for April 16.

The groups claim the state has not bothered to reconsider social-distancing requirements written in the pandemic’s early days. The rules reduced housing capacity in 2020 and exposed farms to fines.

Wafla executive director Dan Fazio said Tuesday the rules should vanish when farmworkers are vaccinated, and that will happen soon.

Maintaining the rules after that will be a slap at farmers who hire and house foreign farmworkers, he said. “It’s not about workplace safety. It’s about politics,” he said.

The petition was filed against the Department of Labor & Industries and the Department of Health. An L&I spokesman said in an email Tuesday that the department expects to renew the emergency rules in May.

“At the same time, we’re continuing to consider permanent rule changes. We’re using what we learn during the emergency rules process to help inform the potential permanent changes,” he said.

A health department spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on a legal matter.

The state set the emergency rules for farmworker housing last May 13. Emergency rules must be renewed every 120 days. Labor and Industries renewed the rules in September and January.

The farm groups complain the agencies have dodged discussions about whether the rules should be revised.

“I don’t see the rules coming off,” Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said Tuesday. “All they know is, ‘Coronavirus — bad, bad, bad, and we have to live with it for the rest of our lives and be locked down.’

“We’re hoping the court will finally say, ‘This could be better,’” he said. “It’s incumbent on the agencies to stay current with reality and science.

“There’s no way you can have emergency rules for a year.”

The emergency rules require workers assigned to units with bunk beds to be isolated in groups of no more than 15.

Farmworkers with COVID or symptoms must be checked twice daily by a licensed health professional, a level of care not required for the elderly in assisted-living centers, the farm groups note.

The farm groups are not challenging rules that require farmworkers to wear masks, wash their hands and spread out while working in fields.

Fazio said he expects all, or nearly all, foreign farmworkers to be vaccinated. “We don’t tell them they can’t come, but they well understand that getting vaccinated is part of living in a congregate setting.”

Medical Teams International, a health organization, has been testing farmworkers coming into the state on H-2 visas. The organization reported that between Jan. 12 and April 5 it tested 7,183 workers and 16 tested positive for COVID, or 0.22%.

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