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Inslee signs worker protection legislative package giving labor protections laws to farm workers

Gov. Jay Inslee today signed a package of bills that will increase worker safety protections, expand support for frontline workers during a public health emergency and grant overtime protections for farmworkers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new focus on the challenges faced by frontline workers,” Inslee said in Yakima Tuesday. “They have kept our state moving through one of our most challenging times, working through personal hardship and challenges. The bills I am signing today represent an acknowledgement of the lessons we’ve learned and offer hope for a stronger path forward.”

Increased worker safety protections

Workers are some of the first to notice and be affected when health and safety guidelines aren’t being followed on the job. When those hazards are reported quickly, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries is able to step in to protect workers. But when workers face retaliation for raising concerns — or are pressured to not report at all — they’re at a higher risk of preventable workplace injuries.

These dangerous working conditions are more likely to impact Black and Latinx workers, who are often assigned more physically demanding and hazardous work. HB 1097, governor-request legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Sells, helps to address these concerns by protecting workers who come forward about workplace hazards. The legislation also establishes a grant program for small employers during a public health emergency. The costs of additional safety and health measures during already tough economic conditions proved to be a significant challenge for employers. This program can be operationalized swiftly during any future emergencies.

“The worker protections legislation we passed this session will make a significant difference in the lives of many Washington working families,” Sells said. “Some of these bills were needed before the pandemic, and COVID-19 only made them that much more urgent. Some things were unfortunately left on the table, but I am committed to continue pushing these issues because our workforce deserves a government that provides support and solutions. I think these bills put us on the right track.”

Expand protections and support for frontline workers during a public health emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how critical it is to respond quickly in a public health crisis to protect the public and frontline workers. The governor signed two bills on Tuesday that will help ensure that increased protections and accommodations are available as soon as a public health emergency is declared.

SB 5115, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, will help protect high-risk workers, ensure that workers know when they’ve had a potential exposure to an infectious disease and make it easier for frontline workers to receive compensation if they’re infected on the job.

“SB 5115 takes a big step to assure frontline essential workers that they will have a safety net to protect them in a statewide health emergency,” Keiser said. “I hope it will also reduce their anxiety and worry as they get up and go to work every day to face potential COVID-19 infection in their workplace.” “SB 5115 will ensure added protections for frontline workers by notifying them and their union representatives of a known COVID-19 exposure,” said Eric Renner, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1439.“This along with new reporting requirements for positive COVID-19 cases to Labor and Industries will promote worker safety for those who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic. UFCW Local 1439 is very appreciative of Governor Inslee for signing this bill into law.”

SB 5190, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Holy, addresses conditions specific to healthcare employees to use unemployment insurance benefits if they leave work to quarantine during a public health emergency and have clear access to workers compensation if they are exposed to the infectious or contagious disease that is subject to the a public health emergency.

“I’m glad the Legislature showed strong bipartisan support in passing this common-sense bill,” Holy said. “Health-care workers face a very direct and immediate threat when they have to treat patients with infectious diseases. I was approached by constituent healthcare workers who had been told to take unpaid leave while quarantining due to exposure or infection from COVID-19 — we must do better by them. When we are facing this type of emergency in our state and country, we need to take care of the people who are being asked to step-up and take care of the public.”

Workers who support our state with essential services and keep others safe on the frontlines should not need to fight for workers’ compensation if they fall ill on the job. Together, these bills help ensure that frontline workers will have access to the protections they need during a public health crisis.

“These worker protection bills are extremely meaningful to nurses and health care workers around the state. We have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than year, and many of us used up our personal sick time because we had to quarantine or got COVID-19 ourselves. This law assures us that in the next state or federal emergency, we can rely on workers compensation and unemployment insurance,” said Washington State Nurses Association member Shelly Pollock Mead, RN, of Senate Bill 5190. “It means that a health crisis will not also become a financial crisis for health care workers.”

Grant overtime protections for farmworkers

On November 5, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, Inc., that the state’s 60-year exclusion of dairy workers from its overtime pay law under the Minimum Wage Act was unconstitutional. It was not clear how the ruling would apply to the rest of the agriculture sector, which includes over 200,000 workers across the state who also are exempt from these protections, or to the issue of retroactive pay.

Sen. Curtis King introduced SB 5172 to protect agricultural employers from the impacts of future legal actions regarding this court case. The bill was a catalyst for a robust collaboration, producing a compromise bill that addresses both the needs of workers and employers.

The bill signed Tuesday creates an equitable path toward full overtime pay for agricultural workers by 2024. The benefits are phased in. For 2022, they ensure overtime pay for any time worked over 55 hours a week; 48 hours a week in 2023; and 40 hours a week in 2024.

This legislation recognizes the long hours put in by agricultural workers across Washington state. Agriculture is a significant sector, comprised of over 30,000 farms and producing over 300 different commodities. This bill signals an equitable path forward and positions Washington among a small handful of states that will now provide overtime pay for agricultural workers.

“I appreciate and am pleased that Governor Inslee came to Yakima to sign SB 5172 today,” King said. “It took a great deal of effort through tough negotiations and compromise to get the bill to today’s signing. There is more work be done but this is a great step forward.”

The governor also signed SB 5396, sponsored by Sen. Liz Lovelett. The bill incentivizes the development of new, community-based farmworker housing, providing more workers with safe and affordable housing.

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