Governor Inslee Plays Politics with Safety Rules for Essential Workers

  • May 29, 2020

Farmers are very concerned about the safety of their employees and have been following all federal and state guidance, often going beyond that with guidance from industry groups. In fact, many of the safety measures the state is calling for are already common practice on many Washington farms.

However, the fact that these very detailed, hard-and-fast rules are inconsistent with other categories of essential workers and give the state, not to mention activist lawyers, the ability to put a farm out of business over even minor violations shows that Governor Inslee is playing politics with essential worker safety. 

If these guidelines are needed to protect farmworkers, shouldn’t they also be applied to essential government workers, grocery workers, food service workers, and others? Why select one group only? The Governor is responding to political pressure from those who have been trying to keep farmworkers from working or even entering our state. Farm labor lawyers who sue farmers were part of drafting these rules which provide the basis for massive new legal action against farmers.

Here’s one example: 

Hand sanitizer is not an adequate substitute for a handwashing station.  Hand sanitizer must instead be provided at high-traffic and other strategic locations, e.g., vehicles used to transport workers, where a handwashing station is impractical.
Use of Handwashing Stations.  Employers must put in place adequate measures to ensure, at a minimum, that employees wash their hands for more than twenty (20) seconds [six times per day]

With these rules a farmer can be fined, sued or put out of business if one of their employees doesn’t wash their hands, or does so for less than 20 seconds. Do employers of grocery workers and government workers have the same mandate? Will they be forced to go out of business and lay off their employees if this is not done?  Activists are agitating farmworkers already, encouraging them to file complaints – this rule gives them yet another avenue to do so.

Another concern is availability of PPEs. Capital Press reported: “Oregon has more than 160,000 farmworkers, according to ODA. If every worker got masks, Wheeler estimates they would run out in about six days.”  We know that hospitals did not have enough PPE and have had to conserve it while treating confirmed cases of coronavirus. Under these rules, nurses would not be able to work if there was a shortage.

Rosalinda Guillen, one of the radical activists behind these rules, has been trying to get Governor Inslee to prohibit farm workers from working in our state since the beginning of the pandemic crisis. This is not to protect workers but in pursuit of her agenda to stop guest workers that she has been pursuing since at least 2013. Sadly, Governor Inslee is caving to this pressure and has produced unworkable rules that apply to only one category of essential workers.

UPDATE: The Washington State Tree Fruit Association shared the following statement about the new rules:

Federal, state, and local governments have defined the production of food as essential to the common good of the United States and the world. In order for food production to proceed, federal, state and local health officials have created guidelines on how to protect the workforce and the food supply. Washington tree fruit growers and packers are following, and in many cases exceeding those guidelines.

We have been in regular communication with the State Departments of Agriculture, Health, and Labor and Industries, as well as the Governor’s staff, as they continue to update safety guidance and requirements. 

We are concerned that some of the requirements of the Governor’s Proclamation are excessively specific and may not be possible for many growers to achieve with one week’s notice in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis.

Since the advent of COVID-19 our biggest challenges have been inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment and other resources needed to fully implement best practices.  We will continue to work with the State to try and resolve these supply issues, and will be looking to them to provide the flexibility to implement alternative and equally protective safety measures where necessary to accommodate resource limitations and diverse circumstances.

Farmers are rising to the challenge of unprecedented disruption with unprecedented focus on their missions to protect workers and deliver nutritious food to the consumer market. Tree fruit growers and packers fully understand and accept their responsibilities to the workforce and the world.