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COVID-19

News >  WA Government

Washington ag workers get new protections from COVID-19

UPDATED: Thu., May 28, 2020

This Nov. 14, 2017 photo shows Narciso Cruz picking Red Delicious apples in an orchard in Tieton, Wash. An emergency order boosts protections from COVID-19 for agricultural workers. (Shawn Gust / AP)
This Nov. 14, 2017 photo shows Narciso Cruz picking Red Delicious apples in an orchard in Tieton, Wash. An emergency order boosts protections from COVID-19 for agricultural workers. (Shawn Gust / AP)

Washington is requiring new safety standards to protect agricultural and food processing workers from COVID -19.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the standards, included in a new emergency order, are designed to protect more than 100,000 people whom he described during an announcement Thursday as some of “the hardest working people around.”

Those workers, whose jobs are deemed essential because of their connection to the food supply, must be provided by their employer with face masks and additional hand-washing stations. Those who work indoors must have at least 6 feet of distance between other workers.

They will have to go through temperature checks at the start of their shifts and wash hands frequently during those shifts. Employers must provide training in how to avoid contracting the virus.

An employee who believes conditions are unsafe can refuse to work, and an employer can’t retaliate for that decision. The employee might be entitled to leave or unemployment benefits if alternative work isn’t feasible.

Agricultural workers who are provided temporary housing will work in cohorts of no more than 15 people who will live in close proximity, work together and travel together if they are provided transportation by their employers. They should not have contact with other cohorts.

The cohorts will make it easier for contact tracers to track any outbreak so those who test positive can be isolated.

“This is protection for growers and their families as well,” Inslee said.

The rules were developed through talks with growers, workers representatives, the state Department of Labor and Industries and health officials.

Erik Nicholson, a representative of the United Farm Workers, said the new rules clarify many things, including social distancing requirements, training for workers on their rights and the requirement for employers to provide masks at no cost.

“They go a long way in addressing fears,” Nicholson said.

Concerns about worker safety have prompted a labor strike earlier this month at some fruit-packing facilities. Inslee said he didn’t know what impact the new safety regulations will have on the strike.

Joel Sacks, director of the department, said the state has been receiving complaints from workers and conducting inspections “where appropriate.” It is also providing consultation to employers who need help, he said.

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