The COVID-19 pandemic has strained agriculture and food production. In the spring and summer, fruit and vegetable and meat processing factories suffered major coronavirus outbreaks and had, in many cases, had to shut down temporarily.
This pattern recurred in Yakima Valley in central Washington, where fruit packing factories were hit by a wave of COVID infection in the summer. The cases have spread from overcrowded and busy processing factories to family and community members, in an area where many workers make their living either in fields and orchards or making food products.
In early summer, as COVID spread and Yakima County accumulated some of the highest number of cases in Washington state, workers at several packing plants went on strike. They demanded PPE (personal protective equipment) for their workplaces, as well as more safety measures in factories to prevent the transmission of COVID, as well as a risk premium as essential workers.
At the end of October, the fall harvest was in full swing in the irrigated orchards of this prominent apple growing region, which also produces bumper harvests of cherries and pears.
“Cosmic Crisp and a lot of really good strains are still in effect until mid-November,” said Mike Gemler, executive director of the Washington Producers League, which supports fruit growers in regulatory compliance and provides housing for agricultural workers in the region.
Gemler said the summer of 2020 has been one of the toughest the industry has seen in decades. There were strikes – which lasted several weeks in some cases – and prolonged shortages of PPE. “Everything around COVID protection was out of stock,” Gemler said, “the masks you needed, the face shields you needed, the handwashing stations – you couldn’t get it. So people were making things in their stores.
Producers also had to redesign their packaging plants to further space workers, which often required slowing down packaging lines or investing in new equipment.
Gemler said the factories are running at full speed now. He estimated that producer costs are up 10-15% from last year. “People just spent the money, if they had it, to stay in business,” he said. “Because if they had an outbreak or if the state came in and inspected and they were full of violations, they would shut them down. ”
The Washington Growers League has had to modify the housing it manages for hundreds of mostly Latinx migrant farm workers and foreign guest workers on H2A visas.
In the SU housing complex in the small farming town of Mattawa, in apple orchard country along the Columbia River, each floor typically houses 24 workers. They share bathrooms, showers, a laundry room, and a kitchen – which now has plastic partitions installed between the stoves. Their temperature is taken and they are screened for symptoms of the disease daily.
“The use of bunk beds really didn’t provide adequate separation, so bunk beds were banned, which halved our accommodation capacity,” Gemler said. A guest worker from Mexico was cleaning his assigned kitchen and was not wearing a mask when this reporter visited. The worker said he was concerned about the coronavirus and usually wore a mask, but left it in his room that morning.
Wendy Lopez runs the site, and is also an elected city councilor in Mattawa. She said most residents of the town and the housing complex routinely wear masks and remain socially distant now. But earlier in the pandemic, she said that is often not the case.
“At first it was a bit difficult,” Lopez said. “People didn’t really believe it was true. But once you see a family member get sick, one of the local priests got sick, it hit pretty hard and that’s when people started to get serious.
Following the summer strikes and the wave of COVID disease that swept through the immigrant community of Yakima, union activists are now trying to organize a union at packing factories in the region.
“Employers are now giving out masks,” said Yakima-based immigration lawyer Eilish Villa Malone Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia / Workers united for justice. “But they [the workers] also work shoulder to shoulder, the lines are super hard which means they throw a lot of fruit on the line and it’s constant physical tension.
And COVID-19 is still a danger to workers and the community. “It’s not really going to go away,” Villa Malone said. “Maybe it’s decreased in percentage, but I still see people getting sick. And many workers are afraid or unable to take time off when they get sick. Because when you are a minimum wage worker you can’t afford to take time off, maybe you don’t have sick leave, and maybe you can’t get unemployment.