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WA issues emergency rules on farm worker housing following lawsuit from farm worker unions

New rules issued one week after lawsuit show improvements, but advocates say serious concerns remain – and new concerns are raised.

The State of Washington issued new mandatory guidelines for worker housing, but no new guidelines on transportation or worksite protections in the midst of a spreading COVID-19 crisis among agricultural workers.  Farm labor advocates including the United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por la Justicia filed suit last week in the Superior Court of Skagit County, calling for Washington’s Department of Health and Labor & Industries to make emergency updates to the health and safety standards meant to protect agricultural workers in the state. The April 16 filings outlined the state’s current deficiencies in COVID-19 protections for both domestic workers and the seasonal workers. Currently, a hearing is scheduled for May 1 on the request for a permanent injunction.

“Housing rules aren’t the only thing that needed improvement,” said Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of United Farm Workers. “What about transportation? Even if the housing rules were comprehensively improved, any safety protocols adopted would be all for nothing once the workers get on a bus together and go to work.”

“There are some good improvements in the housing standards,” Nicholson goes on to add. “There are also some new concerns raised by these rules- such as relaxing standards to allow the use of tents. Why are we housing essential workers in tents when motel rooms are standing empty?

What is the specific basis for only addressing housing, and leaving transportation and workplaces to ‘guidance’ documents?,” said Andrea Schmitt, attorney and advocate from Columbia Legal Services. “The transportation and working conditions of these workers is still a viability for exposure, and still requires mandatory, enforceable rules- not just guidance.”

“These new proposed rules are vague- they don’t provide enough specific requirements to guide most housing providers,” said Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director of Community to Community Development, a farmworker advocacy organization. “Given the virulently contagious nature of this virus, workers need access to training and testing from health care providers, need a manner of getting access to safe quarantine spaces, groceries or safely prepared and distributed food, and access to things like banking services without risk of contagion.”

“This is not a comprehensive plan to protect farmworkers, which is what we really need,” said Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. “Even if these housing rules were enough to really protect residents—and we don’t think they are–workers would still be getting sick on the buses and at work. The state has to do better to protect essential farmworkers.”

“It is good to see movement towards protecting workers from mass exposure, but this isn’t a comprehensive plan,” said Elizabeth Strater, UFW’s director of Alternative Organizing. “Certainly an improvement over the previous guidelines on housing sick workers and uninfected workers in the same room.  There are good things in here, like requiring employers to quarantine, and work with health officials if workers start getting sick.”

Last week’s lawsuit was filed by three firms on behalf of the two farmworker unions: Columbia Legal Services; Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP; and Martinez Aguilasocho & Lynch, A Prof. Law Corp.

RULES ISSUED TODAY: https://www.lni.wa.gov/rulemaking-activity/AO20-09/2009DraftLanguage04232020.pdf

Background:

United Farm Workers, founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and other early organizers is the nation’s first enduring and largest farm workers union, and continues to organize in major agricultural sectors. The UFW continues to actively champion legislative and regulatory reforms for farm workers covering issues such as worker protections, pesticides and immigration reform. www.ufw.org

Community to Community Development (C2C) is a grassroots organization founded by

Washington State farmworkers to promote an equitable food system and access to

fundamental democratic processes. www.foodjustice.org

Columbia Legal Services advocates for laws that advance social, economic, and racial equity for people living in poverty. www.columbialegal.org

Familias Unidas por la Justicia is the only independent union for farmworkers in Washington State. It was founded by Mixteco and Triqui indigenous people in 2013. FUJ now represents over one thousand domestic and H-2A workers hailing from Mexico and Central America. 

Martínez Aguilasocho & Lynch, A Professional Law Corporation (“MA&L”) is a private, public interest law firm based in California’s Central Valley and dedicated to the mission of improving the lives of farm workers and their families nationwide. For over twenty-five years, MA&L attorneys have been representing the United Farm Workers of America and individual farm workers throughout California, Washington, Oregon, and nationwide in all types of complex legal matters. www.farmworkerlaw.com/ourfirm

Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP is the Pacific Northwest’s largest union-side labor and employment law firm. Their roots and commitment to serving working people date back to the region’s labor struggles of the 1900’s. www.workerlaw.com