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Farmworkers’ union sues state agencies over COVID-19 emergency rules

WASHINGTON — A Washington farmworkers’ union has sued two state agencies, asking a Thurston County Superior Court judge to strike down emergency rules on temporary farm worker housing as “contrary to scientific evidence.”

“It took the state 50 days to put out rules that still do not protect farm workers — 50 days. Enough is enough,” said Ramon Torres, president of the petitioner, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

“The state has to realize that without strong protections, the entire industry will crumble. If we don’t fight for farm workers and hold the agencies accountable, who will? We will keep fighting until the agencies pass rules that actually protect farm workers from COVID-19,” Torres said.

The lawsuit asks the court to repeal parts of the emergency housing rules adopted by the Department of Labor & Industries and the Department of Health, which are the respondents in the lawsuit. Also, the farmworkers’ union asks the court to order the state to approve rules that provide workers with more protections.

Washington agricultural employers plan to bring in approximately 30,000 farm workers from rural areas of Mexico under the non-immigrant, temporary H-2A work visas from the federal government. Many work in Yakima County, which has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state.

The lawsuit states that none of the H-2A workers will be tested for COVID-19 before leaving their villages in Mexico, won’t be tested after a lengthy bus ride to the U.S. border, nor will they be tested after being bused from the border to Washington.

Farm worker housing typically is located on farms with labor camps that consist of dormitory-style housing where several hundred workers occupy tight quarters, with about 50 square feet per person, according to the lawsuit.

Operators use bunk beds because they can house more workers in less space, said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. The nonprofit law firm is representing Familias Unidas, along with the Seattle law firm of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt.

Familias Unidas, the United Farm Workers, and other groups sent a plea on March 19 to Gov. Jay Inslee for emergency orders to protect farm workers in housing, transportation, and workplaces. Nearly a month later, Familias Unidas and the United Farm Workers filed a lawsuit in Skagit County Superior Court to compel L&I and the health department to adopt emergency rules.

On May 11, Oregon implemented emergency housing rules that banned the simultaneous use of upper and lower bunks for unrelated workers.

Under Washington’s emergency rules, which took effect on May 18, there is an exception to the prohibition on having farm workers sleep on both levels of a bunk bed.