SLVMS Successfully Assists in Upholding COVID-19 Rules for Farm Workers

Jul 22, 2020

Related Practices: Agriculture and Employment

A Stokes Lawrence Velikanje Moore & Shore team, led by Sarah Wixson, successfully assisted in convincing the court that coronavirus-related housing rules for farmworkers should be upheld.

Sarah Wixson

Farm worker advocacy group Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) filed a lawsuit requesting that portions of the housing rules be sent back to the Department of Labor and Industries and Department of Health for a rewrite. The group claimed that the agencies bowed to the agricultural industry and adopted unsafe standards.

Of particular focus was the practice of allowing isolated groups of workers to sleep in bunk beds. FUJ requested that the practice stop. A bunk bed ban would decrease the available farmworker housing by 50%, which in turn would reduce the number of farmworkers that could be brought in under the H-2A guest worker program. Such a limitation would strain an industry already struggling with labor shortages and reduce the potential harvest.

Several farm groups, represented by Sarah and the SLVMS team, intervened in the lawsuit. The groups noted that a complete ban on bunk beds would force out of work about 10,000 foreign farmworkers.

"That is a worker-driven interest," Sarah stated in an article covering the decision.

"This is a difficult time and these are extremely difficult issues," Thurston County Superior Court Judge John Skinder said when issuing his decision. "I can't find the state acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner."

This is the second time in recent months that SLVMS prevailed in upholding the coronavirus-related rules for farm workers. An earlier lawsuit filed by FUJ and another farm worker group demanded that L&I set strict safety guidelines for agricultural employees. The state issued safety guidelines to agricultural employers, which require maintaining social distance or placing physical barriers between workers, ready access to hand-washing stations, increasing sanitation and ensuring sick employees stay home. The rules also require employers to have procedures for a suspected or confirmed coronavirus case and educate workers about the virus. However, the farmworker groups said that wasn’t enough.

Sarah, along with Brendan Monahan, Lori Busby, Debbie Wilson and Wendy Cates, put together a motion to intervene in the case. They included a record of more than 10 declarations from agriculture employers to educate the court about steps farmers are already taking to safeguard their workforces’ health and safety, and the scientific support for the farmers’ approach.

In that hearing, the court also rejected the argument that the agencies were acting in an arbitrary or capricious manner or that regulatory guidance on how to protect farmworkers was being ignored by the industry.