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Washington agricultural processors could face extra tax for mistreatment of workers

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/deyangeorgie

Washington state lawmakers have introduced identical bills in the House and Senate to tax fruit and vegetable processors that violate any worker protection laws.

The proposed laws were inspired by worker fears about contracting COVID-19, according to the bills’ sponsor Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

“I’m just very concerned about the health and welfare of workers in the processing environment,” he said. “I just got a real sense of their fear from going to work and not feeling protected.”

The state’s agricultural workers have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus. I recent months, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) has fined a number of agricultural companies for violating COVID-19 safety and health rules. In early January, Gebbers Farm Operations, LP, one of the biggest apple and cherry producers in the Pacific Northwest, was fined more than $2 million, after two workers died this summer. Investigators cited the company for several violations, including housing workers in cramped quarters, busing workers to the fields in groups much larger than allowed and failing to report the first worker death.

In late January, Yakima-area fruit grower and processor, Evans Fruit Co., Inc., was fined $156,000 for not following mask and social distancing requirements.

Both companies had been cited previously several times for coronavirus-related safety violations.

House Bill 1285 and Senate Bill 5281 would require fruit and vegetable processors to make annual disclosures of any lawsuits and complaints filed against them related to employment, labor or civil rights laws. The bills would also allow unions and other worker organizations to submit their version of events.

Food processors found guilty of any of these laws – which include wage and hour laws, break and schedule rules, human rights or discrimination, sexual harassment, workplace pregnancy accommodations, health and safety laws, as well as wrongful termination or unfair workplace practices – would be required to pay Washington’s business and occupation (B&O) tax, from which they are currently exempt. In 2020, 239 businesses save a total of about $17.3 million from the B&O tax exemption, according to the Washington state Department of Revenue.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed spending $4.5 million to set up a new division within L&I, which also administers workers’ compensations claims, to focus on safety issues in the agricultural industry.

The real costs of workplace safety violations fall on the workers who are injured or fall ill as a result of the oversights.

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us for a free consultation about your L&I, workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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