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Lack of protection from coronavirus puts 'essential' farmworkers and food at risk

Among the crops at risk are Washington's renowned apples. Some of the crop is dumped when labor shortages prevail.
Shannon Dininny
The Associated Press (file)
Among the crops at risk are Washington's renowned apples. Some of the crop is dumped when labor shortages prevail.

Farmworkers are considered an essential part of the food supply system, so they have to stay on the job, even under Gov. Jay Inslee’s“Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

But many of the people who work the fields or ranches here lack sufficient protection to keep them safe from the coronavirus. Human rights advocates say that needs to change immediately.

Constitutional lawyer Stephanie Ross wants consumers to remember where the all the fresh greens or famous Washington apples we enjoy come from. Many immigrant farmworkers that pick and pack this food stay in housing that doesn’t provide enough space for social distancing.

“We have the duty to gear up for the harvest season in Washington state,” said Ross, who has a law practice on Bainbridge Island.

Most farmworkers live in housing that doesn’t allow them to stay far enough apart to avoid spread of the coronavirus. And many are undocumented and without health benefits, making it harder to access care. Ross says for starters, state and federal governments should find a way to provide them with expanded sick leave.

“They weren’t included in the stimulus bill. And it’s necessary to protect them," Ross said. "Because people who either have to go to work sick or starve or not work aren’t given the kind of safeguards that we as a society need — and that they as individuals need.”

She says under Washington state’s emergency declaration, theFederal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has authority to provide temporary housing units, to spread bunks out more than 6 feet apart. She wants Congress and the governor to take action now.

“They’re handling so much so fast, but this is a huge gaping hole. For the farmworkers, for their families, for their communities and for the food chain,” Ross said. “It’s huge. And it requires immediate attention.”

There’s already a labor shortage. Ross says if conditions don’t change, farmworkers are at risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

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Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to