WAWG provides comments on governor’s COVID-19 ag requirements

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee released his agriculture COVID-19 requirements. While the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) understands that these new health and safety guidelines are intended to protect farmworkers in the agriculture industry, we found them shocking and alarming, especially as we head into harvest season.

WAWG was not consulted on these new requirements, and we have deep concerns with how broad, burdensome, and unattainable some of them are. The requirements are to be applied to all agricultural activity, regardless of the operation. We also heard from producers who expressed similar concerns. Moreover, the governor’s office gave us less than a week to comply with these onerous, expensive requirements.

With the help of our lobbyist, Diana Carlen, WAWG put together written comments that were submitted to the governor’s office yesterday in hopes of persuading the governor to adopt a rule more in line with the rule adopted in Oregon. Oregon’s rule is limited to labor-intensive farm operations  when employees would otherwise perform their duties or routinely congregate within six feet of one another.

In our comments, we pointed out that “…dryland wheat farms are not as labor intensive as irrigated fruit and vegetable farms. Our members typically employ between two and five employees. Wheat farmers work alongside their employees every day and consider them essential to their business. Since COVID-19 hit, wheat farmers across the state have been operating as essential businesses without any incidents of harm to our employees. They have done this by following the same requirements that all essential businesses have been operating under, including following physical distancing policies; frequently washing and sanitizing hands; practicing precautions such as avoiding touching their face; and avoiding contact with those that are sick.  Since wheat farming is not labor intensive, the risk of COVID-19 exposure to wheat farmworkers is low when the above rules are followed.”

We are concerned that implementing these changes will substantially increase the overhead costs of family businesses and make production of locally raised food products unstable. In addition, complying with these new requirements in a timely manner is likely impossible due to a lack of personal protection equipment, availability of handwashing facilities in the state and CDC-recommended cleaning supplies on the market. We are concerned that certain rules require changes in agricultural workplaces that are not attainable by farmers because there are considerable supply chain issues that make complying with these rules impossible.

To read the comments that we submitted, click here.

Shortly after we submitted our comments, the governor’s office released additional guidance for the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, most of the regulations we are most concerned about didn’t change; however, guidance did change on handwashing stations on outdoor worksites to only apply to employees engaged in hand-labor operations in the field and on transportation, stating that any farming vehicle used solely by one individual need not be disinfected until or unless another individual intends to use the vehicle.

Please know we are aggressively opposing these new requirements and will continue to press for guidance that is more inline with how work is conducted on dryland wheat operations. Questions or comments can be directed to michelle@wawg.org or through your county director to the board.