Many Washington state farmers rely on foreign workers through the Federal H-2A work visa program to harvest their crops. However, the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) are considering emergency rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that farming advocates say could require cutting the number of guests workers this year by half – a “season-ending” result for many farmers.
“There’s no way that growers are going to be messing around,” Washington Farm Bureau (WFB) Government Relations Associate Director Bre Elsey said. “Crops don’t get harvested.”
The proposed rule was released April 23 following a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Skagit County Superior Court by Familias Unidas Por La Justica and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) against DOH and L&I. The lawsuit concerns temporary worker housing rules and physical distancing in those facilities.
Elsey said initially the draft emergency rules provided “discretion and flexibility” and took into account the reality that “things in a packing house are different (than) in an open field. Our ability to separate people in a process shed is different than trimming apple trees.”
However, the plaintiffs argue that those policies were too ambiguous and “couched in suggestions, not mandates. Vulnerable farmworkers deserve clear, enforceable regulations that provide real workplace protections.”
The social distancing policy includes sleeping quarters. Farmers heavily rely on bunk beds to house guest workers but would be prohibited from using the top bunk under the proposed emergency rules. Yet, Elsey said “there isn’t a surplus of houses available in addition to what’s been allocated.”
Save Family Farming estimates that half of the 22,000 H-2A farm workers expected to harvest this year’s crops will be unable to work as a result of this policy. Elsey said this would only put further strain on many farmers who are already struggling just to meet payroll. “My farmers are of course panicking, rightfully so. Most of my farmers are fighting bankruptcies.”
Others have questioned the true intent of the lawsuit filed, which only applies to temporary workers. Save Family Farming Communications Director Dillon Honcoop told Lens the legal move is part of an effort to undermine the use of guest workers. The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the U.S., while Familias Unidas Por La Justica signed its first agreement with a Skagit County-based berry farm in 2017.
“They view H-2A workers and their presence in Washington as a major obstacle to being able to unionize domestic workers,” he said.
WFB President Mike LaPlant said in a statement that: “the timing of this lawsuit was purposeful and intentional. These labor groups placed their own political interests over the needs, health and safety of the farmworkers they claim to represent.”
Elsey said the more immediate impacts would be entire harvests lost. Save Family Farming estimates two billion pounds of apples would be wasted, in addition to cherries, wine grapes, pears and hops.
Elsey said it’s hard for “a generation that has never felt food insecurity in their lives” to grasp the idea of food shortages. “They treat eating as if it were a luxury, rather than a necessity. I don’t know how to describe to them …when we don’t pick it – it isn’t on your (store) shelf.”
Public comment on the rule is accepted through April 27. A final rule is expected to be adopted by May 1.