State Institutes More Protections for Agricultural Workers, Considers Creating Relief Fund for Undocumented Workers

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on May 28 that the state will be instituting additional protections for agricultural workers, and that his office is looking into the possibility of creating a relief fund for undocumented workers who do not have access to unemployment benefits, despite paying taxes.

Inslee said the new regulations regarding agricultural work “complete the remaining standards that really are necessary to implement a cohort model set forth in the state’s previously released rules on housing.”

These regulations include restricting groups of workers to 15 people or fewer in housing and transportation situations, as well as requiring workers to have access to face coverings and four times as many hand-washing stations as they had previously. Inslee said the state has distributed more than 135,000 cloth face coverings to agricultural workers.

In late April, the Emerald reported that workers in agricultural packing warehouses in eastern Washington were concerned about a lack of targeted enforcement of the Labor and Industries (L&I) Department’s regulations, regarding protections against the novel coronavirus. Workers said that their employers had not been providing them proper personal protective equipment or much information about the virus. They also said that there were no opportunities to social distance in the warehouses in which they worked, and that their employers were facing no repercussions.

L&I Director Joel Sacks said that L&I is responsive to complaints, has been inspecting warehouses, and that the department currently has a number of open inspections. He said that, when L&I inspectors perform an inspection, “they are looking for the kind of things that we’ve been talking about.”

“Is there social distancing? If there is not social distancing, because of the nature of the job, what are the mitigations that employers are putting in place to protect workers. Is there … enough hand-washing stations? Are things being cleaned on an appropriate basis? Are workers being trained?” Sacks said. “So, we have been doing inspections. We will continue to be doing those inspections. And for the warehouses that ask for it, we are also available to provide consultations.”

He did not respond to the Emerald’s question about the frequency of inspector visits or specify how many open inspections the department currently has.

Inslee said his office is in the process of looking into whether or not the governor has the power without legislative action to create a relief fund for undocumented workers, as they do not have access to unemployment benefits, despite paying taxes.

“We are still trying to nail that down. We need to get that answer first. And if the answer is yes, then to look at the appropriate scale and scope and how it would be targeted,” Inslee said. “We hope to have that shortly, and it is under active consideration.”

The Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution on May 18 asking that Inslee create a $100 million fund for undocumented workers. Mayor Jenny Durkan signed and returned the resolution on May 26.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.