Bunk beds remain a reality for farmworkers in Washington, at least for now.
Not everybody is happy with the recent decision by Judge John Skinder of Thurston County Superior Court, who rejected claims by a farmworkers union that state agencies yielded to pressure from the agriculture industry and adopted unsafe farmworker housing standards back in May.
But we agree with the core of Skinder’s decision, which upheld housing rules set by the state Department of Labor and Industries and the state Department of Health: Rules were made in good faith and with a clear intent to protect workers, taking into consideration how much was and remains unknown about the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“This is a difficult time, and these are extremely difficult issues,” Skinder said. “I can’t find the state acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner.”
Nor was the judge’s approach capricious. Burdened with the unenviable task of weighing evidence on coronavirus science, the needs of farms and the safety of all involved, Skinder noted that he had read thousands of pages of records. “This is an extremely important case,” he said. “I thought about this case late at night and early in the morning and all throughout the day.”
The rules, which were issued May 13, allow the use of bunk beds if there are shelter groups of 15 workers or fewer who travel, work and eat together. Familias Unidas por la Justica, the plaintiff farmworker union based in Burlington in the Northwest part of the state, sought a ban on all bunk beds.
Several farm groups that intervened in the lawsuit noted that a ban on bunk beds would force out of work about 10,000 foreign farmworkers.
State’s attorney Elliott Furst said the agencies discussed all the information they had on the virus and took expert advice. “This was not some back-room deal cut at the expense of workers,” he said.
Interestingly enough, Erik Nicholson, vice president of the United Farm Workers, sided with the farm groups in a court document, stating that Familias Unidas por la Justica seeks the removal of all federal H-2A workers
Said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which represented FUJ: “We are obviously disappointed. We believe that the rules don’t protect farmworkers as well as they should. But we knew the legal standard was difficult; it is an extraordinarily high standard.”
Judge Skinder acknowledged FUJ’s “important perspective”: “It’s a perspective they clearly will advocate on behalf of domestic and temporary workers. Based on my review of my records, the state will continue to listen to those concerns.”
That’s an important point. While we support the judge in this most difficult decision, we recognize the concerns of farmworker advocates regarding worker health and safety. The vast majority of farmworkers in the Valley and across the state are Latino — a group that makes up 13% of the state population but 44% of COVID-19 cases and 30% of hospitalizations.
The Latino population in Yakima is much higher, and it is imperative that stakeholders keep a close eye on farmworkers’ health and working conditions and quickly take all necessary steps at the first sign of infection, including isolation and contact tracing. The people who help keep our farms, orchards and vineyards going — and thus help feed the nation — deserve nothing less.