Washington authorities have pulled back many of the temporary farm labor housing restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, moving operation requirements closer to those of pre-pandemic days.

In an announcement last week, more than two years after the temporary rules took effect, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries dropped a ban on bunkbeds unless workers were housed in cohorts of 15 who work, eat and travel together.

“While this latest emergency rule will maintain some additional operating requirements this season, it represents a significant shift back toward normal housing operations in keeping with the guidance for the rest of the state,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, in an email to the group’s members.

In spite of the recent changes, most of the housing operators had already resumed using bunkbeds by now anyway, DeVaney said. About a year ago, the state began allowing bunkbeds for vaccinated workers, and many agricultural laborers who live in temporary housing facility come to the state from a foreign country on an H-2A visa, for which the U.S. government requires proof of vaccination.

Last week’s rule change also removed requirements for cleaning and disinfecting, except in areas where people have symptoms or positive COVID-19 tests, and to provide thermometers to workers.

The updated rules leave in place many other requirements, however. Symptomatic workers must still be visited by a health care professional in isolation. Meanwhile, companies must still educate workers about COVID-19 in their language, provide face masks, operate ventilation systems and allow entry of community health workers and community-based outreach workers.

—by Ross Courtney