With thousands of H-2A workers set to arrive in the coming months, Washington growers are pushing Gov. Jay Inslee and state agencies to take a different approach on COVID-19 regulations for farmworker housing.
A coalition of groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau and Wafla, the state’s largest contractor of H-2A workers, is urging Inslee to repeal and replace newly revised emergency rules for temporary housing.
The group contends that the rules, which were released Friday and are effective through May, are mostly a copy of the agencies’ policies for the last several months and do not acknowledge any new developments, such as the availability of vaccines.
The rules say that growers cannot use bunk beds unless they agree to put employees into shelter groups that work, travel and live together. The rules call for the groups to be no larger than 15 workers, but as was the case previously, growers can apply for a variance that would allow for larger shelter groups.
Without such a variance, the amount of available housing for farmworkers — namely, those under the H-2A foreign guest worker program — would have been reduced upwards by half, creating a financially unsustainable situation, industry leaders say.
“Farmers barely made it through last year,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla. “What’s the point of the vaccines if we have new emergency rules that go through May?”
Fazio and agriculture organizations say continuing with the emergency rules makes little sense when vaccines and farmworkers, as essential workers, should be a high priority to receive them. Agricultural workers over 50 are already listed by the state as a priority group to receive vaccines.
Wafla, along with the Washington Farm Bureau, sent a letter to Inslee this week asking him to repeal and amend the rules because of the development and availability of vaccines.
Fazio said grower groups want to adopt a model where H-2A workers would be tested upon arrival at the grower’s expense. Once any potential workers who are positive for COVID-19 are isolated and treated, growers can start the process of vaccinating workers.
“We think once you are 100% in your congregate housing facility, you don’t have to be under the emergency regulations of COVID,” he said, referencing vaccinations.
Fazio said several grower groups pointed out the need to consider vaccine distribution during the comment period for newly revised emergency rules last month. Wafla sent 10 pages of comments.
“We’re asking them, ‘What happened to the comments that farmers sent in? Wafla? Farm Bureau?’” he said.
In the appeal letter, Yakima attorney Gary Lofland mentions that state law prohibits the adoption of “identical or substantially similar emergency rules” in sequence unless agencies want to adopt the rules permanently.
A different approach
The Washington State Tree Fruit Association expressed similar concerns but decided to take a different approach.
The organization is writing a letter to Inslee urging collaboration between the industry and state agencies on a plan to vaccinate agricultural workers.
“We think rather than waiting until the process starts and trying to figure out the logistics, we should be working on the planning process,” said Jon Devaney, the organization’s president. “It’s a huge logistical challenge.”
Like Fazio, however, DeVaney believes a focus on vaccination would enable growers to resume capacity levels in farmworker housing.
“Vaccination is our best means of ensuring safety and returning to more normal operations,” he said.
DeVaney said he was disappointed in the lack of revisions in the renewed emergency rules, especially the omission of vaccine use. But he felt that the rules have been “pretty effective in protecting workers,” and there were other avenues to push for cooperation with state agencies.
Fazio said he’d seen the letter the Washington State Tree Fruit Association will be sending and said he feels farm groups are united in their general stance of supporting widespread testing and vaccination.
“It’s a different means to the same end,” he said. “We are very much supportive of their efforts.”