Washington state sets new rules for farmworker housing

The Washington Growers League owns and operates the 200-bed Bender Creek housing for seasonal farmworkers in Cashmere. The league's executive director says the buildings won't have a problem meeting new state standards.

OLYMPIA — Two state agencies have finalized new standards for farmworker housing, regulating everything from minimum living space to the number of toilets in group quarters.

The Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries on June 17 issued the rules, which will take effect in one month, though most requirements won’t have to be met until Jan. 1, at the earliest.

Farm groups have expressed concern that changing the rules will force growers to close housing or pay for expensive remodeling.

The health department’s health facilities director, Lisa Hodgson, said the agency was sensitive to farm economics.

“I believe we really tried to balance the costs to growers with the health and safety of workers,” she said.

Washington Farm Labor Association Director Dan Fazio said Wednesday the organization is reviewing the standards and planned to ask the health department for a briefing.

The association had urged that the state rules not exceed federal farmworker housing standards and that they not apply to existing housing.

The final rule doesn’t include a grandfather clause for current housing. But in some cases, growers will have two or more years to meet the standards.

The state standards will have requirements related to fire extinguishers, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, partitions between toilets and shower stalls, and storage lockers not found in federal rules.

Fazio said the new rules could further complicate efforts to bring in H-2A foreign workers, who must be supplied housing licensed by the health department. Growers already are struggling with multiple agencies to meet H-2A requirements, he said.

“The government has to decide whether it wants a guest-worker program,” Fazio said. “I don’t see the commitment.”

The state law on minimum space requirements will mirror federal standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each worker must have at least 50 square feet in sleeping quarters and at least 100 square feet in units with a kitchen. Currently, housing must have at least 70 square feet of floor space for the first worker and 50 square feet for every worker after that.

Growers will have until Jan. 1, 2019, to meet the space requirements. Growers can apply for a three-year extension if they have a plan to provide the space. The health department received comments that the space requirement would be a hardship and that farms needed time to comply.

Older farmworker housing may fall short of the standards, but for most units, the changes probably will be minor, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which owns seasonal housing in Cashmere and Malaga in Eastern Washington.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a widespread impact,” he said.

Gempler said the new rules include “commonsense” requirements, such as locks on bathroom stalls and places for workers to secure their belongings.

“Overall, we don’t see it as something that would change things for us,” he said.

Columbia Legal Services attorney Dan Ford, who has represented farmworkers, called the rules a “mixed bag,” noting that some farmers may not meet the space requirements until 2022.

“That’s a long time to wait,” he said.

Indoor temperatures can’t be hotter than 90 degrees, a limit too high for workers recovering from a day laboring outside, Ford said. “We’re talking about basic protections,” he said.

The rules incorporate standards for cherry harvest tents licensed by the health department. Altogether, the health department in 2014 licensed 266 temporary farmworker residences with 16,633 beds.

The health department struck a proposal to require rails on top bunk beds.

The department also dropped a requirement to require housing to have sinks with hot water for washing hands, a provision opposed by the farm labor association.

In the final rule, the department noted it received comments about the requirement. According to the department, “The evidence indicates that use of soap, cool water and friction (rubbing hands together) can be as effective as hot water for successful hand washing.”

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