Unions celebrate new state protections for farm workers, but say the fight isn’t over

Agricultural employers in Washington state must now provide their workers with face masks, more hand-washing stations and information about the coronavirus under new rules by the governor’s office.

“We are very pleased and more importantly, the workers with whom we’ve been talking are very pleased,” said Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of United Farm Workers. “[The rules] are clear. They’re not ambiguous. And they are enforceable.”

Gov. Jay Inslee has faced mounting pressure in recent weeks, facing a lawsuit by farm workers’ unions asking for further protections for agriculture workers and a caravan of workers on strike traveling from Yakima County to the governor’s residence in Olympia to ask for the same.

Nicholson said a driving force in workers’ efforts was the uncomfortable ambiguity in workplaces, where employees were unsure of their rights during the pandemic.

“It has been very frustrating and has generated a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety amongst workers because there was no clarity up until now,” Nicholson said.

With the new rules, workers are now covered at indoor and outdoor worksites, farm worker housing units and during transportation to and from the worksite. According to the governor’s office, violating those rules could result in up to a $7,000 fine for employers. 

“[Employers] now have to, every day, provide a clean mask to all the workers they employ,” Nicholson said. “It seems like such a minor thing, but it’s a huge step forward and something that all the farm workers that we’ve talked about are feeling quite good about.”

The proclamation established requirements for employers in keeping their workers safe and healthy, including:

  • Providing workers with any necessary personal protective equipment, including gloves, goggles, face shields, and face masks, for free and on a daily basis
  • Requiring cloth facial coverings to be worn by every employee not working alone on the jobsite
  • Ensuring physical distancing of six feet or more during all interactions on the job
  • Providing additional personal protective equipment, barriers and/or negative pressure ventilation wherever strict physical distancing is not possible
  • Ensuring that high-touch surfaces are disinfected before the workday starts, as well as before and after morning, lunch and afternoon breaks
  • Assigning and training employees on proper methods for cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces
  • Providing appropriate and adequate supplies for routine cleaning and disinfection, as well as any required deep cleaning
  • Providing adequate handwashing stations at every location and at all times that employees are acting within the scope of their employment, including  soap, tepid water, disposable paper towels, and a garbage receptacle
  • Providing hand sanitizer must at high-traffic and other strategic locations where a handwashing station is impractical, like vehicles used to
    transport workers
  • Ensuring employees wash their hands for more than 20 seconds when they arrive at the worksite, before their first break, before and aftrer their lunch break, after using the restroom, before leaving the worksite and at the end of the day
  • Documenting and maintaining a COVID-19 Response Plan that includes:
    • Immediate shutdown, deep cleaning, and disinfecting of all areas where a symptomatic employee was present
    • Immediate notice to employees who worked in close proximity of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 of possible exposure;
    • Informing employees of their rights to secure compensation during any resulting quarantine period, including paid sick leave
    • Assurance that ill employees stay home or remain isolated in housing, or leave the worksite if feeling or appearing ill
    • Immediately informing the relevant county health department of any employees testing positive for COVID-19 or sent to quarantine for possible exposure to the virus
  • Checking employees’ temperatures and completing a symptom checklist at the beginning of each day, with all thermometers  properly sanitized between each use
  • Ensuring timely access to COVID-19 tests for symptomatic employees to the extent feasible and providing transportation as needed, along with designating a person or persons to facilitate testing

Employers must also provide educational materials like workplace posters and training about the risks of COVID-19 and workplace safety protocols, including information about:

  • Handwashing methods and importance
  • Signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with COVID-19
  • Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state Deparment of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries on how to prevent the spread of the virus
  • Proper usage of personal protective equipment and proper respiratory etiquette
  • Disinfecting methods for frequently touched items
  • Steps taken in the workplace to promote COVID-19 health and safety
  • How to file a workplace complaint with L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health
  • Employers’ required COVID-19 Response Plan
  • How to file for medical sick leave, paid sick leave, and/or workers compensation under the governor’s emergency proclamation

The proclamation includes further requirements specific to outdoor worksites (orchards, vineyards and fields) and indoor worksites (dairies and fruit or vegetable-packing warehouses).

In the proclamation, Inslee notes the essential nature of agriculture workers, saying protections are not only important for workers’ health and safety, but also for the food system they help to maintain and the impact their work has on the state’s economy.

Washington produces more than 70 percent of the nation’s hops and cherries, more than 60 percent of all apples and almost half of all pears. Statewide, the agriculture industry brings in more than $10 billion dollars in sales revenue and makes up 12 percent of the state’s economy.

Nicholson describes the food supply system as a chain, with each grower, supplier and worker represented as a link in the chain.

“We have now shored up a number of those links, but there are too many links that are still very, very weak and stretched to the maximum,” Nicholson said. “We’ve got to address 100 percent of the links to make sure this chain remains whole and that we do not have any interruptions in our food supply.”

To do that, Nicholson said the union is continuing to press the federal government to create protections for farm workers in other parts of the country.

“It’s of grave concern that the federal government has failed to take any substantive measures whatsoever to protect farm workers and continues to put the nation’s food supply system at risk,” Nicholson said.

Additionally, Nicholson said both the state and federal government have yet to provide binding regulations regarding paid sick leave, hazard pay and paid daycare, as farm workers’ finances continue to diminish.

While workers continue to show up amid COVID-19 concerns and exposure at workplace, Nicholson said there has yet to be widespread hazard pay to compensate workers for the risks they take to do their jobs.

“Over the last several months, we’ve seen people’s out of pocket expenses just skyrocket,” Nicholson said. “Their wages have not moved. There’s been no hazard pay overall in the industry and so they’re poorer now than they were pre-pandemic.”

Nicholson said many farm workers who test positive for the coronavirus or are involuntarily quarantined due to exposure won’t be compensated for the time they’re unable to work.

“That’s just not right for an essential worker to be suffering economically because of this virus,” Nicholson said.

While some other essential workers are able to work from home and continue to watch their children, Nicholson said those working in fields and warehouses aren’t able to do that and often must pay for childcare.

“It’s just absurd that in the 21st century, we have essential workers that do not have access to paid daycare,” Nicholson said. “We believe all essential women and men should have access to free paid daycare so they can, without concern, go out and perform their duties so the rest of us can safely stay at home.”