L&I issues temporary COVID-19 rules for farm labor housing

For the Basin Business Journal | June 8, 2021 1:00 AM

OLYMPIA — The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and the State Department of Health in early May issued revised COVID-19 guidelines for farmworkers living in temporary housing.

The guidelines, the third revision to COVID-related housing rules for farmworkers since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, will change how farmworkers can access health care when they are isolated or quarantined, how isolation and quarantine rules apply to vaccinated workers in group housing, and which workers must be quarantined and how, when living in group housing.

Many of the other rules governing farm worker housing under COVID-19 remain unchanged, according to a Labor and Industries press release.

The guidelines were issued on May 7, the day before the previous set of guidelines were set to expire, and are part of the state’s efforts to craft permanent rules, according to Dina Lorraine, a spokesperson for Labor and Industries.

“The idea is to eventually have permanent rules, but they were not done in time,” she said.

Washington Farm Bureau Federation CEO John Stuhlmiller, believes the rules — which will remain in place until September, long after Gov. Jay Inslee’s declared date of June 30 to reopen the entire state and well into harvest — are not necessary, and health and safety standards for farmworker housing in place prior to the pandemic — like washing hands regularly to prevent the spread of influenza, as an example — were more than effective.

“What we are advocating is to go back to the basic rules that we had,” Stuhlmiller said. “What we have seen, and the Centers for Disease Control numbers back us up, is that agriculture is safer than elsewhere.”

Stuhlmiller said the Farm Bureau is at least glad some consideration is given for vaccinated farm workers in the new rules, noting farmworkers have much higher vaccination rates and migrant workers — those on H-2A visas — are nearly 100% vaccinated.

In fact, Stuhlmiller said he hopes the rules will eventually go away, and not become permanent.

Under the new guidelines, isolated or quarantined workers can receive medical visits “through telemedicine” but must include a review of symptoms, temperature and a blood oxygen level test. Previously, only in-person medical visits were allowed, and were required twice a day — a requirement Stuhlmiller said was difficult for many farm owners to meet.

As part of the new rules, employers must provide a working telephone and, if needed, an interpreter.

The revised rules also address the fact vaccinated workers may be living in group housing situations with unvaccinated workers, noting vaccinated workers may share common areas and ride together to, from, around and between job sites “while maintaining physical distancing” and wearing masks.

Finally, the revised rules also state all farm workers, and not just those living in group situations, should be quarantined and housed separately when exposed to COVID-19 unless they have been vaccinated.

Lorraine said both the Department of Health and Labor and Industries are working to craft permanent rules for farmworkers on the assumption COVID-19 is likely to be a long-term reality in Washington state. Something neither department currently has.

“That’s how we’re operating,” she said. “We’ve got several different rules (we’re working on) that address a major health crisis that don’t say ‘pandemic’ or ‘COVID’ because we currently don’t have rules for major health crises.”

Stuhlmiller said the Farm Bureau still hopes Inslee will, at some point, do away with the emergency rules for farmworker housing. Right now, the June 30 reopen date covers everything except businesses governed by special rules, and the state’s farmers will need all the housing they can muster for this year’s harvest.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in ag country, and it’s up in the air,” he said. “These rules are not as farsighted as we wanted to see.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.