Bitter fruit: COVID crisis grows for guest workers

The recent announcement by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) of a $2 million-plus dollar fine levied against Gebbers Farms for violations related to guest worker deaths during the COVID pandemic is setting off alarm bells within the agriculture community.

With thousands of guest workers waiting at the gate for the first quarter of the 2021 season, farmers are fearing the fallout if state COVID emergency rules are not modified to prevent a shortage in an already tight labor supply. The fact that L&I is poised to punish violators for failing to adhere to halved housing occupancy rates and other protocols put in place in 2020 fails to factor in advances – like vaccines – that improve the prospects of protection and safety measures.

It does not help matters that Washington state became the poster child for the novel coronavirus when the first case on U.S. soil was reported here one year ago on Jan. 21. Fast forward 12 months, nearly 300,000 COVID cases, and 4,065 deaths later – 45 of those in Okanogan County – and you begin the appreciate the problem. We do not have a template in place to pilot us through this storm. The economic stress on citizens and businesses builds toward critical mass on the one hand while our over-taxed medical emergency personnel struggle under the caseload on the other. So far there has been no remedy for the present crisis that does not hurt some segment of the pubic. That includes the peripheral group that comprises the front line of our food industry.

The near-miraculous speed under which researchers have developed several vaccines to combat the plague offers the best hope of slowing down the spread of the virus. However, at this writing the new cases diagnosed are growing faster than the vaccination rate of citizens.

The state has adopted a cautious and conservative approach under the current Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery plan. As of this writing the entire state remains under Phase 1 through Jan. 28. Washington is among the six remaining states – California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Mexico, and D.C. – that has yet to allow high school sports this year.

Agricultural groups including the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington State Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) are asking the state Department of Health (DOH), L&I, and the governor to revisit renewed COVID rules. The groups want the state to prioritize testing and vaccinations of guest workers to reflect the improved science and understanding of COVID since the rules were first enacted May 2020.

The regulations as they stand limit farmworker housing facilities to 50 percent occupancy even after the workers are vaccinated which appears to run counter to getting farms back on the road to normal operations.

The dual goal here should be to protect the crucial first link in our food supply chain - farm worker health – and still allow farmers to remain in business. It is a tightrope to walk but one the state needs to address while there is still time to do so.


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