Washington judge upholds farm housing coronavirus rules


OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A Washington judge Friday upheld coronavirus-related housing rules for farmworkers, rejecting claims by a union that the state bowed to the agricultural industry and adopted unsafe standards.

The Department of Labor and Industries and Department of Health strove to protect workers from a disease about which little was known, Thurston County Superior Court Judge John Skinder said.

“This is a difficult time and these are extremely difficult issues,” he said. “I can’t find the state acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner.”

Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker union based in northwest Washington, filed the suit, arguing that Washington should have followed Oregon and completely banned bunk beds, The Capital Press reported. Attorney for the union, Andrea Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services, said the rules were the result of political pressure and that state agencies didn’t consider the best evidence available for protecting workers.

Several farm groups intervened in the lawsuit, saying a complete ban on bunk beds would force out of work about 10,000 foreign farmworkers, far more than in Oregon.

The state’s attorney, Elliott Furst, said L&I and the health department discussed what information they had about the virus and relied on expert advice.

The farms groups said the rules have forced farms to reduce the number of workers they house. A ban on bunk beds would have cut capacity by half.

The Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Growers League, Washington State Tree Fruit Association and Wafla intervened in the lawsuit.

FUJ political director Edgar Franks said in an email that the farm groups were defending “corporate farms’ access to a vulnerable work force of H-2A workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”