H-2A guest workers wear protective gear outside of an H-2A housing complex Monday, April 12, 2021, in Selah, Wash.

A court ruling this week will remove some COVID-19 requirements on farmworker housing, as state agencies work on new rules to be issued in early May.

Wafla, a Lacey-based nonprofit that works on agricultural labor issues, and the Washington Farm Bureau, a trade association also in Lacey, sued the state in Yakima County Superior Court. The two organizations argue that the revised coronavirus rules issued in January were a rollover of policies established at the start of the pandemic and disregard industry feedback, improved understanding of COVID-19 transmission and best safety practices.

The groups sued the state Department of Labor and the state Department of Health in February after Gov. Jay Inslee rejected their appeal to revise or repeal the rules.

On Wednesday, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson issued a stay that would prohibit enforcement of several requirements. Under the ruling, the state can no longer enforce the following requirements for farmworker housing facilities:

  • Requiring twice-daily medical visits to isolated farmworkers with COVID-19 or symptoms.
  • Requiring access to emergency services within 20 minutes.
  • Requiring access to an emergency room with a ventilator within an hour.
  • Opening access to farms to undefined community workers.

Farmworker housing is still subject to several key restrictions under the rules. Housing capacity is limited to 50% and bunkbeds are prohibited unless employers maintain cohort groups that work, travel and live together.

In a news release, the agricultural groups considered the ruling a victory.

“After a year of asking the state to work with the farm community to make science-based adjustments to the COVID-19 emergency regulations, we’re very pleased with this common-sense ruling,” said John Stuhlmiller, chief executive officer of Washington Farm Bureau, in a news release. “However, it’s disappointing we had to take this step when the state has been willing to work collaboratively with other industries.”

In a follow-up written statement, Stuhlmiller said the groups plan to pursue the rules as a whole when the case is transferred to Thurston County Superior Court.

The groups said temporary H-2A workers arriving in the state in the coming months will be tested and then vaccinated. They call for fewer restrictions based on those practices.

“We will be continuing to press for repeal or modification (of emergency rules) addressing changed conditions, including vaccination of farmworkers,” Stuhlmiller wrote.

For the agencies, the court’s ruling was mostly a formality. The state Department of Health filed a declaration stating that specific medical monitoring requirements were not feasible. L&I also filed a separate declaration earlier stating that it would not act on any violation of those requirements.

“It’s important to note that key components were upheld — things like limitations on bunk beds, the requirement for ventilation and the cohort size requirements,” said Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor & Industries, which has enforced the emergency rules. “All of the section of the rule that provides the most protections for farmworkers were upheld.”

The current version of the emergency rules is set to expire in early May and work is ongoing on a new version of the rules that will replace them, said Ginny Streeter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.

Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases with the agency, wrote in an April 13 court declaration that draft versions of the revised rules remove the provider access requirement and replace the twice-daily medical visit to workers with COVID-19 or symptoms with a daily phone call.

Lindquist said the revision will also address vaccines for essential workers. Vaccines were not widely available when the rules were last revised in January.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang

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