farmworker housing

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries and Health Department on June 1 revised emergency housing rules for farmworker housing. Farm groups, critical of the prior set of rules, hail the changes.

OLYMPIA — Two Washington state agencies Tuesday rolled back mask and social distancing rules for vaccinated farmworkers living in company housing.

Labor and Industries and the Health Department's new emergency rules for suppressing COVID in farmworker housing lifted some requirements opposed by farm groups.

"All in all, they are feasible," said Dan Fazio, CEO of Wafla, a supplier of foreign seasonal farmworkers. "We believe that with these rules if we can get people vaccinated, housing capacity will be fully restored."

The state agencies set emergency rules May 7, 2020, mandating that workers in bunk-bed housing be isolated in 15-person cohorts. The agencies said Tuesday the rules could be revised because of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that vaccinated people did not need to wear masks. 

Wafla and the Washington Farm Bureau have been arguing for several months the rules should be dropped if workers are vaccinated.

A lawsuit the two groups filed in Thurston County Superior challenging the rules will now be dropped, Fazio said.

The Farm Bureau and Wafla issued a joint statement Wednesday, calling the new regulations great news and a boost to farmers looking ahead to harvests and economic recovery.

The new rules do not return housing regulations back to pre-pandemic standards.

Farms must still follow a pandemic rule by allowing union organizers and legal aid representatives access to worker housing, though there is no requirement the visitors be vaccinated.

Unvaccinated foreign workers in the U.S. on H-2A visas must still be housed by the employer. Unvaccinated workers sleeping in bunk beds must follow mask and social distancing requirements.

An L&I spokesman said Wednesday that the agencies are continuing to work on a permanent rule for housing farmworkers to prevent infectious diseases from spreading.

Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said farmworker housing was already regulated before the pandemic to meet health and safety standards. He questioned the need for a permanent rule.

"We need to get back to normal," he said.

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