Gov. Jay Inslee has rejected an appeal from several agricultural grower groups to repeal and replace emergency rules for temporary farmworker housing.
Inslee said the state Department of Labor and Industries and state Department of Health were right to issue the revised emergency rules on Jan. 8, according to a letter he sent Jan. 18 to Gary Lofland, a Yakima attorney representing Wafla and the Washington State Farm Bureau Federation.
The emergency 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 to allow for larger shelter groups.
In their appeal to Inslee, the two grower groups took issue because the rules were mostly a copy of the agencies’ policies for the last several months and did not acknowledge any new developments, such as the availability of vaccines.
In his letter, Inslee maintains that the state is still in an emergency and that the state agencies did not err in issuing emergency rules.
“Agricultural workers living in worker housing facilities are particularly vulnerable to this disease, given the congregate nature of these facilities and the ease with which the virus is transmitted in these environments,” Inslee wrote. “Last growing season, Washington saw 145 outbreaks in agricultural settings and two fatalities in temporary worker housing. I am unaware of evidence demonstrating that the risk of COVID transmission in agricultural settings will dissipate before widespread vaccination.”
Agricultural officials are concerned that the emergency rules — which will be enforced until at least May — would further reduce the amount of available housing for workers, impacting harvest and how much growers can earn, industry officials said. The federal H-2A program allows growers to bring in temporary workers from other countries. Growers anticipate about 25,000 H-2A guest workers this year in the state.
Previously Wafla Executive Director Dan Fazio said grower groups were pushing for a model where they would test H-2A workers upon arrival and then vaccinate them, making the emergency rules unnecessary.
In an emailed statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic, Fazio said he was disappointed at Inslee’s decision and that the groups are contemplating their next steps.
“It’s really disappointing that after nearly a year, the state continues to ignore farmers’ concerns with ill-conceived emergency regulations,” Fazio wrote. “We’re asking to be treated like other industries that have been allowed reasonable changes based on best science and improved understanding of COVID transmission.”