Unions are suing the state of Washington, accusing leaders of failing to protect farm workers from the coronavirus

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  • A new lawsuit filed Thursday accuses Washington state of failing to protect the lives of farm workers, demanding it immediately issue mandatory, emergency regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Washington has issued voluntary guidance that recommends employers provide sick farm workers masks, "if available," and suggests allowing sick workers to sleep in the same room as healthy employees.
  • The state is the leading producer of apples, hops, and blueberries in the United States, crops picked by tens of thousands of seasonal workers, many of them immigrants.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Labor unions are suing the state of Washington over the treatment of farm workers during the pandemic, arguing that officials have failed to protect the safety of a largely immigrant workforce in an essential industry.

Washington is the United States' top producer of apples, accounting for 70% of total production; it's the top producer of hops, blueberries, and pears; and it's second biggest source of potatoes and onions.Advertisement

Those crops are picked by roughly 100,000 seasonal workers, many of them immigrants, either undocumented or on guest-worker visas, who rely on their employers for basic accommodation, which could be one big room for dozens of workers.

That, along with the strain of grueling fieldwork, makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

In the lawsuit - filed Thursday in the Superior Court of Washington for Skagit County and obtained by Business Insider - lawyers for United Farm Workers, the AFL-CIO, and Familias Unidas por La Justicia accuse the state of risking lives by not issuing emergency regulations with mandatory guidance for employers in the agricultural industry.
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Instead, the lawsuit argues, the state's Department of Labor and Industries, as well as the state Department of Health, have produced voluntary recommendations with no real teeth.

One such guidance, issued March 23 by the Department of Health, recommends that employers "Consider providing masks to sick people, if available." If a farmworker displays symptoms of COVID-19, employers are to separate them from other employees, per the document - but not by much. "Facilities with a single room should assign sick occupants to one side and occupants without symptoms to the opposite side," the state guidance recommends.Advertisement

The lawsuit, which demands that the state immediately issue emergency rules to impose mandatory safety requirements on employers, comes after the parties tried advocacy. On March 19, Bloomberg reported, "a committee of both agricultural industry leaders and labor advocates sent Washington Governor Jay Inslee a list of recommendations to help protect staff, including state support in providing protective equipment, testing and temporary housing with enough distance between beds."

But organizers said their calls were not heeded.

Neither the Department of Health nor the office of Gov. Jay Inslee immediately returned a request for comment.Advertisement

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