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Unions demand Wash. labor and health agencies protect farmworkers from COVID-19

Daniel Wiessner  

Daniel Wiessner  

(Reuters) - Two unions have filed a lawsuit seeking to force Washington’s state labor and health departments to issue rules to protect immigrant farmworkers during the coronavirus pandemic, saying non-binding guidance released by the agencies is inadequate.

United Farm Workers of America and Familias Unidas Por La Justicia in a complaint filed in Washington state court on Thursday said thousands of farmworkers in the eastern part of the state are living in cramped dormitories without protective equipment, and fear they could be fired or deported if they complain.
The unions said that rather than exercise their authority to adopt emergency rules to protect the workers and stem the spread of the virus, the state Department of Health and Department of Labor & Industries have issued guidance that creates few consequences for employers who ignore it.
The health department, for example, has said that employers should isolate workers living in temporary housing who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, but has failed to inspect dormitories to ensure employers are doing so, according to the complaint.
The unions said the agencies’ “garbled, non-mandatory ‘Fact Sheets’ … have both grower and farmworker advocates confused, stuck in neutral and wasting precious time while increasing numbers of farmworkers labor and live in conditions that imperil their lives.”
The departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The unions in the complaint said the agencies have violated their statutory duties to issue health and safety standards that prevent farm laborers from “suffer(ing) material impairment of health.” They are seeking an injunction requiring the agencies to create emergency rules protecting the workers.
There are about 9,000 immigrant farmworkers in eastern Washington who were brought to the country under the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers, and up to 20,000 more will arrive soon, according to the complaint.
Unions and worker advocates have similarly criticized the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for issuing a series of non-binding guidance documents while refraining from adopting rules requiring employers to take measures such as providing protective equipment and implementing social distancing.
The case is Familias Unidas Por La Justicia v. Washington Department of Labor & Industries, Washington Superior Court, Skagit County, No. not available.

For the unions: Amy Crewdson of Columbia Legal Services, Kathleen Barnard of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, and Charlotte Mikat-Stevens of Martinez Aguilasocho & Lynch
For the agencies: Not available

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