MALTBY — Employees at a plant nursery here have gone from mask-less to masked, despite the owner’s argument that requiring face coverings poses a risk to his workers’ safety.
A Thursday visit to Flower World found workers complying with a state mandate to wear masks, a strategy aimed at combatting the spread of the coronavirus.
But owner John Postema last week told The Daily Herald he plans to legally challenge the mask mandate “based on the rational(e) that face masks do not protect our employees and is in conflict with” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Efforts to reach him Thursday were not successful.
In June emails to The Herald, Postema said he believes masks would be a hazard for his employees, rather than keeping them safe.
The Labor and Industries requirement for employers to provide workers with face coverings is “counter to the long standing requirements that the Employer provides a safe and healthy work place for its employees,” Postema wrote.
He has repeatedly cited health concerns, such as the possibility that a mask could be a source of infection when not properly handled, as reasons to not allow his employees to wear face coverings.
“The governor’s recommendation and guidelines, which over time have changed and have not been based on established laws, but merely on guess work,” Postema said in a statement he sent to the Herald. “Therefore it is the responsibility of the employer to figure out how to protect his employees.”
After a Herald article last week about the Labor and Industries investigation into Flower World, Postema explained his justification of the no-mask rule to customers in a June 22 newsletter.
“We have concluded it is neither fair nor healthy for our employees to wear a mask for 8 hours in potential 80-90 degree temperatures,” it read.
That was before Gov. Inslee’s June 23 announcement that people in Washington must wear a mask or cloth face covering in any indoor or outdoor public setting.
Postema also released an announcement June 23.
“We have received a multitude of comments on our previous message,” another customer newsletter read. “Some agree and some disagree …”
Postema differentiated Flower World from other plant nurseries, saying the business should be exempt from mask requirements because the products are grown on-site.
He went on to refute arguments that he should follow public health guidance.
“… Some of you have pointed out that we do not know what we are doing and should follow all the Health Experts advice,” Postema wrote. “We do follow recommendations and guidelines, but ultimately we have to supply a safe work environment for our employees. Those Health Experts did not prevent 10,000 people from dying in New York and 100 people in nursing homes in Snohomish County.”
Longtime customer Bethany Williamson said she can no longer shop at Flower World in good conscience.
For years, Flower World has been her go-to spot for everything from trees to annual vegetable starts. She lives in Kirkland but would carpool with a neighbor and make a day out of visiting the nursery.
“I have spent thousands there,” she said.
After reading about the company’s no-mask policy, Williamson said she won’t return.
“I’m done,” she said. “I was horrified. There’s a big difference between not requiring (masks) and telling (employees) they can’t wear them.”
Mill Creek resident Kim Smith, who has shopped at Flower World for nearly 25 years, also said she won’t purchase from the nursery again.
“I find it shameful that he is putting the health and welfare of his employees and customers at risk,” she said. “Flower World has lost me as a customer.”
Postema has repeatedly stated he believes Flower World is exempt from mask requirements because the operation is a “negligible transmission risk” due to the open-air nature of a nursery.
That’s a real category, but state Labor and Industries spokesperson Tim Church said the state doesn’t generally classify a business as one level of risk.
“It is job to job based on what a person does, and can even change throughout the day for the same worker depending on the task they are performing,” he wrote in an email.
Most of Flower World’s employees are working in low- to medium-risk jobs, Church said. But that doesn’t excuse them from wearing a mask.
“In any case, unless they are working alone, they would require a face covering of some type for negligible, low or medium risk,” Church said.
A former Flower World employee described an environment where it wasn’t possible to maintain social distancing.
“They say they have all this land and all this room for people to do social distancing,” the young woman said. She asked to remain anonymous to protect her future employment prospects. “But people break that rule all the time. Employees would have to break it when you go on break and have to pass by people. Especially during busy days like when quarantine first started.”
The employee described lines hundreds of people long.
“They were swarming,” she said.
The woman’s account mirrored that of another former employee who quit as a result of the no-mask policy.
Despite a Flower World requirement that employees wash hands 12 times per day, the former employee said workers weren’t given a chance to step away from the long lines and wash their hands.
The employee was one of few who wore a mask before the June 3 letter barred face coverings.
When she went to work June 4, the worker said, she wore one as a form of protest.
“I felt like, ‘I’m having to choose between my financial stability and my health and that’s not fair,’” she told the Herald.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.