SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Some top agriculture groups are upset with Washington Gov. Inslee because farm workers were not covered in last week's announcement that fully vaccinated employees do not have to wear a mask or socially distance at work.
Inslee also recently announced that the state could fully reopen on June 30 or earlier amid declining COVID-19 case counts and a push to increase vaccination rates.
Washington Farm Labor Association Executive Director Dan Fazio and Washington Farm Bureau Chief Executive John Stuhlmiller issued a joint statement this week saying Inslee failed to disclose that these new rules do not apply to farm workers that live in temporary housing, even if they are fully vaccinated.
“As the 2021 harvest season launches, this double standard for the agricultural community is not based on current science, is creating widespread confusion and is financially catastrophic," the executives said.
Thanks to widespread testing and vaccination, farm worker facilities in Washington state are much safer than local communities, achieving a nearly 100% vaccination rate, the ag executives said.
They said the emergency regulations will remain in place into September, the heart of the harvest season, unless the governor acts.
Washington farmers annually employ tens of thousands of migrant farm workers to produce the state's bounty of agricultural products, including apples, cherries, grapes, asparagus and many other perishable crops. Many live in communal housing provided by growers.
Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said Tuesday the governor's announcement did not mean an end to the state of emergency or to workplace protections necessary to address the threat of COVID-19.
“Under recent guidance from the CDC, fully vaccinated workers can now operate without the restrictions of masks or social distancing,” Faulk said. “This is the case in agriculture, and in all other workplace settings.”
But farm workers who live in communal housing are separately covered under rules from the state departments of Health and Labor & Industries, Faulk said. Those agencies are currently exploring changes to align with CDC guidance on masking and distancing, Faulk said.
“That latest update pertaining to housing will hopefully be final soon,” Faulk said.
The current rules require fully vaccinated farm workers to wear masks in off hours. They also limit the use of bunk beds to shelters housing no more than 15 workers, which reduces capacity in company housing.
Isolated 15-person groups can share restrooms, kitchens and buses with other isolated 15-worker groups if all workers are fully vaccinated, but the fully vaccinated workers must still wear masks and be socially distanced, according to the rules.
Farmers, who are responsible for seeing that workers obey the rules, are being forced to spend time enforcing the regulations or risk being fined, Fazio told Capital Press.
The farm groups contend the restrictions are counterproductive. With housing capacity reduced, more employees must live in towns where workers are more likely to get COVID-19, they contend.