Harvest vs. safety; ag workers at risk in Chelan-Douglas counties / Facebook post, The Searchlight Review

Butler to Austin 043020

Click the graphic to enlarge a copy of a 4/30/20 email from Malcom Butler, a Chelan-Douglas Health Officer, sent to JT Austin of Governor Inslee’s office. The complete text of the email is contained in the blog post

July 7, 2019  Sandy Robson

From this recent Searchlight Review Facebook post, we can get some insights into the foundations of why agricultural workers continue to struggle against the imbalance of negative impacts suffered by them due to COVID-19.


In reviewing public records I recently obtained from the Chelan-Douglas Health District related to a COVID-19 outbreak at Stemilt Growers, a grower, packer and marketer of apples, pears, cherries and other tree fruits, I came across an email that I wanted to share.

JT Austin, senior policy advisor (Natural Resources & Environment policy), Office of the Governor Washington state, sent an April 30, 2020, email to Chelan-Douglas Health Officer and Columbia Valley Community Health (CVCH) Chief Medical Officer Malcolm Butler. CVCH provides medical, dental and behavioral health services.

JT Austin’s April 30 email read:
“Short but sweet as I’m pressed for time but…what is your position on using bunkbeds with heads and feet at opposite ends for dorm worker housing?”

Back at that time, in April and early May, in a joint effort by Washington state’s Department of Labor & Industries and Department of Health, new emergency rules were being crafted regarding temporary farm worker housing aimed at helping to increase worker safety and reduce the chance of a large outbreak and/or spreading the coronavirus related to temporary agricultural worker housing.

The rules were outlining specific measures which would be required at agricultural operations where temporary workers will live in licensed temporary housing facilities. On May 13, the new rules were announced which would take effect May 18.

Chelan-Douglas Health Officer Malcolm Butler’s April 30 email reply to JT Austin read in full:

“We have no data to support or reject the idea. Unless we know of some way to find enough housing without bunkbeds that will allow the harvest to happen, then we may need to allow bunkbeds and use other modalities to protect the workers in these congregate settings.

“I’m not suggesting this, just by way of example: In other countries all migrant workers are quarantined for two weeks prior to being deployed to their work sites. That assures that there is no incoming infection. If all workers are confined to a farm and housing facility, and all food, toileting, supplies, and recreation are available on that site, and workers never are exposed to local communities, then there is no way additional infection could enter. In that type of situation, sleeping arrangements wouldn’t matter.

“Also, looking at where people were sleeping at the Stemilt facility, there is no evidence that the sleeping arrangements impacted the spread of the disease. A worker being positive or negative did not correlate in any way to the sleeping arrangements.

“Finally, since housing for agricultural workers is a finite resource, we may need to choose between abandoning bunk beds, OR having the capacity to appropriately quarantine and isolate non-positives. Since we have no evidence that sleeping arrangements impact the spread of COVID-19, and very solid evidence that isolation and quarantine are very impactful, we should prioritize having space to isolate and quarantine over abandoning bunk-beds.

“If there is a way to abandon bunkbeds and find enough housing to get the harvest in and find enough space to isolate and quarantine appropriately, then caution would argue to do away with bunkbeds. If not, I would not do away with bunkbeds until we have better evidence, and I would require adequate isolation and quarantine facilities.”

The stated mission of the Chelan-Douglas Health District, according to its website is: “To protect and improve the health of individuals and communities in Chelan and Douglas counties through the promotion of health and the prevention of disease and injury.”

The Health District’s website also states: “We believe that prevention is the most effective way to protect our community from disease and injury.”

I don’t understand why the director of a county health agency would be concerned with, and factor-in, getting the harvest in/allowing the local harvest to happen in his response he provided to the question asking his position on using bunkbeds with heads and feet at opposite ends for dorm worker housing that was posed by the governor’s senior policy advisor.

It seems that according to the Health District’s stated mission, its agency should put its sole focus on protecting the health of individuals and communities in Chelan and Douglas through preventing disease and promoting health, and not be considering the viability of local harvests in its policies, decisions, and actions.

Also, it was disturbing that in the second paragraph of Malcolm Butler’s email he gave what he said was an example (but said he was not suggesting) that if you kept farm workers at the farming and housing site and they would never be “exposed to local communities,” then there is no way additional infection could enter. He added that in that type of situation, then sleeping arrangements for workers wouldn’t matter.

That described existence for farm workers sounds very bleak and inhumane. Why bring it up at all if you are not actually suggesting it in some way. And, why did Mr. Butler make the comment after his description, that in that type of situation, sleeping arrangements for workers then would not matter?

P.S. The records I received from the Chelan-Douglas Health District were sent to me in over 100 emails. There are multiple PDFs and documents contained in each of those emails. I’ve only had time, so far, to open about 6 of those 100+ emails sent to me.