SPOKANE — Employers must provide agricultural workers with face masks, more hand-washing stations and more frequently disinfect work surfaces under new coronavirus rules established Thursday by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Also Thursday, Secretary of Health John Wiesman signed an order for all residents and staff in nursing homes to be tested for COVID-19 by June 12, and all residents and staff in assisted living facilities with a memory care unit to be tested by June 26. The state will provide test kits and personal protective equipment for administering tests to every facility at no cost.
The nation’s first deadly coronavirus outbreak was at a Seattle-area nursing home where more than 40 people died. In early May the state’s COVID-19 response team said at that time more than 60% of the coronavirus deaths in Washington were linked to long-term care facilities and more than 250 such locations had reported at least one COVID-19 case.
The new agricultural rules are intended to protect the approximately 100,000 farmworkers in the state from getting the coronavirus, Inslee said.
“Every time we eat there was a hand that provided our sustenance,” Inslee, a Democrat, said in Olympia. The new rules would help protect both workers and farmers, he said.
Inslee issued the emergency proclamation as the harvest season moved into high gear, especially in the central Washington farm belt that grows many of the nation’s apples, cherries and other crops.
The new rules call for farm and produce warehouse laborers to be divided into groups of no more than 15 people who live together, are transported to fields together and work together, Inslee said. Staying in such groups will help curb the spread of COVID-19, he said.
Specifically, the new rules require employers to provide free face masks and other personal protective equipment, Inslee said.
The rules require more hand-washing stations in fields and mandate when workers should wash their hands. Workers must practice social distancing on the job and workplaces must be cleaned and sanitized at regular intervals.
Employers must also educate workers on how to stay safe.
“It is critical that growers and agriculture workers work together,” said Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries.
The agency has been conducting outreach programs on television, radio and social media to get the message out, Sacks said.
There are penalties of up to $7,000 for failure to comply, Sacks said.
But Inslee added that most employers are in favor of the new rules. “We have had some folks who need reminding,” the governor said.
The plight of farm laborers during the coronavirus has come into focus lately as many field workers and people who work in food processing plants in Central Washington have become ill.
Yakima County, a major producer of farm products nationally, has the highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita in the state. Some agricultural workers there are conducting wildcat strikes seeking safer working conditions and hazard pay.
Inslee previously released rules for employer-provided farmworker housing that allowed up to 15 people to share a dormitory-style room with bunk beds. Some advocates for workers criticized those rules as too lenient.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.