Washington state COVID safety rule for farmworkers upheld by appeals court

REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini
  • State rule required farmworkers to wear masks and social distance
  • The rule wasn't preempted by federal OSHA guidelines, court said
  • Because OSHA lacks power to police COVID-19 safety, per a Supreme Court decision

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Thursday rejected a flower nursery's claim that a 2020 Washington state rule requiring agricultural businesses to take various steps to protect workers from COVID-19 was invalid.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the state's rule, which required farms to provide face masks, conduct temperature checks and enforce social distancing, did not conflict with any federal regulations enforced by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (The rule was withdrawn last year.)

Flower World Inc, a large retail garden center, had argued that the rule was preempted by a federal law imposing a general duty to maintain a safe workplace.

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But the 9th Circuit said the U.S. Supreme Court last year held that OSHA lacked the power to regulate the general risk of COVID-19 in the workplace when it struck down a vaccine mandate from the agency. That means OSHA had no ability to enforce requirements similar to those in the Washington rule, the court said.

A lawyer for Flower World did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did the Washington Attorney General's Office.

Flower World challenged Washington's rule after the state's labor department in 2020 fined the company $4,200 for failing to comply with the requirements. Flower World had argued that because OSHA was using the general duty requirement under federal law to cite employers for COVID-related violations, the Washington rule was preempted.

Thursday's ruling affirmed a 2021 decision by a federal judge in Tacoma, Washington, who had dismissed the lawsuit.

The 9th Circuit panel included Circuit Judges Sandra Ikuta and Eric Miller and U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson of the Central District of California, who sat by designation.

The case is Flower World Inc v. Sacks, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-35641.

For Flower World: Dick Stephens of Stephens & Klinge

For the state: Anastasia Sandstrom of the Washington Attorney General's office

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.