Washington state issues emergency rule to protect farm workers from COVID-19. But worker advocates fear it won't save many lives.

Reuters/Mike BlakeFarm workers are an essential labour force in Washington and other states, with much of the work conducted by migrants on temporary work visas.
  • Washington state issued an emergency rule on Wednesday that requires employers to increase sanitation and provide farmworkers cloth masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
  • The state was sued in April by labour unions, which alleged it was failing to adequately protect this essential workforce from the threat of COVID-19.
  • However, those unions are not pleased with the new regulation.
  • “It’s insufficient, from our perspective, to protect workers,” Elizabeth Strater, an organiser with United Farm Workers, told Business Insider. “We expected a lot more.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The farmworkers who pick your apples will enjoy a few more protections from COVID-19 under new emergency rules issued Wednesday by the state of Washington.

The development comes after labour unions sued the agricultural powerhouse, claiming it was not acting fast enough to protect this essential workforce during the pandemic, as Business Insider reported last month.

But union organisers fear the regulations, which require employers to provide workers “cloth face coverings” and to ensure “physical distancing” in their communal housing, will not save any lives if they are not enforced.

“It’s insufficient, from our perspective, to protect workers,” Elizabeth Strater, an organiser with United Farm Workers, told Business Insider. “We expected a lot more.”

Washington is one of the leading producers of not just apples, but hops, potatoes, and grapes, all harvested by tens of thousands of seasonal workers, many of them migrants on temporary work visas. Those migrants – most from the Americas – work for one employer or face deportation (deported migrants account for 20% of Guatemala’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths).

At one orchard in central Washington, over half of the 71 workers tested positive for COVID-19. For that reason, worker advocates had, among other things, hoped the state would do away with the use of cots and bunk beds; require employers to check temperatures and provide fresh masks at the beginning of each shift; and protect workers after their shift by allowing them to order groceries for delivery at no charge.

Labour organisers were also fighting to improve quality of life for a workforce that was socially isolated long before the pandemic, fighting to require that employers provide amenities such as high-speed internet and television.

The state’s new rules, effective May 18, do not require any of the above, nor specify how often workers are to receive fresh masks. They also continue to allow as many as 15 workers to sleep together, separate from others, in “group shelters” with bunk beds, which are required to be cleaned daily and spaced six feet apart, with inhabitants asked to “sleep head to toe.”

That, in particular, irks organised labour, who say such housing situations are conducive to the spread of the coronavirus, requiring shared use of kitchens and bathrooms.

And while those with symptoms of COVID-19 are now to be identified and isolated – before, employers could let them sleep on the other side of the same room – there is a question of enforcement, Strater said, “since the state has no plans to re-inspect housing based on these new rules.”

The rules do, however, require employers to submit a plan detailing how they plan to comply.

The Washington State Department of Health, which issued the emergency regulation in conjunction with the Department of Labour & Industries, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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