Lucia Chavez fell into a depressive spiral after losing her sole source of income when Ostrom Mushroom Farms unexpectedly fired her after several years with the company, a major producer in the Pacific Northwest.
She was left unable to care for her sick son, she said, and could not understand why she and others were fired without warning after years with a company that had promised to create jobs for residents near its Sunnyside, Yakima County, farm.
Ostrom found itself embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general in August after an investigation found the company had systematically fired 80% of its employees, mostly women, and replaced them with foreign workers under the H-2A visa, which grants fewer labor rights.
The ongoing lawsuit also alleges the company retaliated against employees who reported concerns over working conditions and refused to hire women and U.S.-based workers. Ostrom offered H-2A workers $17.41 an hour but paid some U.S.-based pickers $14 an hour on average, according to the lawsuit.
Ostrom declined to comment on the litigation or other allegations from workers. But in a September response to the Yakima County Superior Court lawsuit, Ostrom denied claims of discrimination and retaliation against employees, reported the company paid its U.S.-based and H-2A workers the same and said the company is seeking dismissal of the attorney general’s claims.
In response to alleged ongoing discriminatory practices and retaliation, an estimated 50 current and former Ostrom employees plan to gather at 11 a.m. on Sunday at a large carrier of Ostrom products, a Metropolitan Market in Seattle’s Uptown neighborhood. The demonstrators will call on shoppers to boycott Ostrom products and for retailers to stop carrying the company’s produce until Ostrom meets their demands for reform.
In a statement shared after publication, CEO Cheryl Adams said Ostrom believes the union is spreading misinformation and the company strives to provide high-quality products, pays competitive wages, constantly promotes a respectful work environemt and meets industry safety standards.
But the Department of Labor and Industries fined Ostrom $4,000 this month after an inspection found the company’s working conditions left employees susceptible to injuries that could hospitalize them or cause partial disabilities, according to citation and notice documents.
Dina Lorraine, an agency spokesperson, confirmed the agency opened inspections in August and October after receiving complaints about Ostrom. The November citation was based on complaints received in August, but the October complaints are still being investigated, Lorraine said.
Ostrom has not yet appealed its fine but has until early December to do so.
Chavez had worked at Ostrom for about four years when the company fired her without cause in April, she said.
She’s worked in agriculture for most of her 48 years in the U.S., picking apples in the fall and pruning trees in winter — with snow reaching her knees at times, she said.
“I believed I’d retire there,” she said of Ostrom.
Like most agricultural labor, mushroom picking is exhausting and intense, Chavez said. But the one perk mushroom picking holds over other such work is that it’s done inside a warehouse that shields workers from harsh weather.
Every room is full of eight mushroom plots each measuring about 50 square feet, Chavez said. It usually takes a 14-person crew about eight hours to finish a room, she explained, but current Ostrom workers reported they were expected to complete that work with fewer people in three to four hours.
They said they feel exasperated and don’t have time to even let out a “sigh” or go to the bathroom, according to Chavez.
“How is this not blatant injustice?” Chavez asked. “It’s like they don’t think that we are people and have families too.”
Farmworkers are excluded from protections under the National Labor Relations Act, which aims to protect a worker’s right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining. The act prohibits employers from firing workers for joining, organizing or supporting a labor union.
Nonetheless, Ostrom workers formed a committee with support from the United Farm Workers, seeking union recognition and demanding an end to unjust firing practices, as well as restitution and guaranteed fair pay.
Union organizers continue to work with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to investigate complaints of poor working conditions, said Roman Pinal, a United Farm Workers organizer.
Workers under H-2A visas have also faced discrimination and abuse, Pinal said, and the union is looking into those complaints, among others.
“We want to make sure that if someone is heading out to work they’ll be able to return with their families at the end of the day,” Pinal said.
Chavez said workers want to see changes to the company and its administration, noting it’s important for company leaders to fully understand what it takes to do the work of a mushroom picker to put an end to unrealistic demands.
Union organizers plan to carry the campaign to boycott Ostrom mushrooms to major retailers in Portland and elsewhere, Pinal said.
“We are fighting for a voice at work,” José Martínez, a union committee member who’s worked for Ostrom for over two years, said in a statement. “We have come together to demand better working conditions. We will not stop fighting. We are just getting started, we demand to be treated like human beings.”