For a woman who works the fields in the Yakima Valley, the spring routines remain largely unchanged.

Crews huddle in the morning to hear instructions, then prune trees, tie up branches and replant orchards, often in close proximity to one another. Those who want to wash their hands — vital workplace safety in the age of the novel coronavirus — need to bring soap from home, and until recently their own water, according to an April 1 complaint the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is looking into. And judging by a video shared with The Seattle Times, at least one portable bathroom on this site is dirty, the faucet dry, the soap and towel dispensers empty.

A couple of others who work for the employer, Stadelman Fruit, already may have contracted the virus, prompting the company to send many workers home for a few days in early April, according to the woman, who asked not to be identified, worried about retribution.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“We’re scared,” said the worker.

In the Yakima Valley, as in the Puget Sound region, this is a difficult spring shadowed by a pandemic. But in this rural part of the state, much of the work cannot be done from home. It unfolds in the fields, orchards and packing houses essential to keeping grocery stores stocked with food.

With the growing season under way, employers, farmworker advocates and state officials are wrestling with redefining workplace safety, a task that eventually will spread to other parts of the economy when the governor’s stay-at-home order is relaxed.

The coronavirus creates special challenges for agriculture. By summer, some 80,000 workers find jobs in Washington agriculture, including more than 20,000 recruited from Mexico and other nations under temporary visas.

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With safety guidelines rushed through earlier in the pandemic, the state has drafted new rules — expected to be finalized soon — requiring agricultural employers to “facilitate” social distancing that keeps workers 6 feet apart, ensure frequent hand washing and isolate sick workers. In recent days, farmers and farmworker advocates, often at odds over labor conditions, have scrutinized proposals in teleconferences as they grapple with a common threat.

Without such measures, Carlos Olivares, CEO of the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, said the region could become “the new epicenter of the disease” for the spread in Washington.

While coronavirus hospitalizations appear to have peaked in much of the state, he and other Yakima health officials say the county’s peak is yet to come.

Yakima County has more than 440 confirmed cases, and the April rate of increase has been higher than in the Puget Sound area.

In Grant County, Health District Administrator Theresa Adkinson said several farmworker cases have been investigated in Quincy and Mattawa.

Existing case numbers are likely an undercount due to limited testing. 

“WE’RE THE ONLY ONES WORKING”

Many farmworkers are “very young and feel invincible,” Olivares said. They are still going to crowded flea markets and holding large family gatherings.

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Luz Bazan Gutierrez, secretary of the Yakima Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, co-owns a grocery store and check-cashing business popular with farmworkers. She said she has a hard time getting customers to stop chatting close together.

“We’re the only ones working,” they tell her, happily. An estimated half of all farmworkers are undocumented and therefore ineligible for unemployment insurance.

Yet, Ramón Torres and Edgar Franks, the president and the political director of the farmworker union Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, said they heard a lot of anxious questions during a recent trip to the Wenatchee area. How do you get tested? What happens if you get sick? What happens if you die?

Some workers from other countries want to know if their bodies would be sent back to their home countries.

Officials have scrambled to find answers. The state enacted emergency rules to provide health care coverage for COVID-19 patients who are undocumented. And the federal government made two weeks of paid sick leave available to most workers through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. (The act does not stipulate legal status and is thought to include undocumented immigrants.)

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But that information isn’t necessarily getting through to workers. One man who works in a Wenatchee warehouse told Torres and Franks he asked a supervisor what would happen if employees got sick. They could apply for vacation time, the supervisor said, but only if they had worked at the company for a year.

The worker said he fears getting the virus and infecting his family. The warehouse has put tables in a break room 6 feet apart. But that guideline isn’t applied during work time.

“You’re working on a line, people are really close together,” Franks explained. The company provides hand sanitizer for employees but not masks or gloves.

Worker advocates say they’re hearing a lot of similar stories. “Many are doing little to nothing” in the way of precautions, said Erik Nicholson, a national vice president of the United Farm Workers who is based in the Tri-Cities.

“We’re doing the best we can,” said Bob Grandy, food safety director of Brewster-based Gebbers Farms, which has multiple fruit orchards and warehouses. “We’ve never been here before. It’s a real challenge.”

It’s a simple matter to spread workers out in the fields, he said. Warehouses are different. “Work stations on a packing line are not set up 6 feet apart,” he said.

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Grandy said the company has looked for ways to lessen risk. It has given workers bandannas to use as masks, and gloves. And it is putting up cardboard dividers between work stations.

Asked if the company has thought about putting employees at every other work station to keep them farther apart, Grandy said, “We’ve thought about everything.” He declined to elaborate on why the company has chosen not to.

FARMWORKERS ESSENTIAL

The pace of agricultural work quickens as orchards ripen with fruit.

Roughly a third of the farmworkers recruited from Mexico and elsewhere under the H-2A visa program already are in Washington. Another big surge will arrive later this spring to help in the cherry harvest, and another wave later in the summer for the apple season as the Trump administration has allowed most visa processing to continue and designated those border crossings part of “essential travel” allowed to clear U.S. entry points even as some other travel is restricted.

“My concern is they will be brought up in buses, crowded together, from the border,” said Michele Besso, head of Northwest Justice Project’s farmworker unit. Then, they are often placed in housing furnished with bunk beds, sometimes four or more people to a room, with shared kitchens and bathrooms. On grocery trips enabled by company buses, “often 50 guys on a bus will pull up at a store,” Besso said.

Dan Fazio, of WAFLA, an Olympia-based organization that brings in H-2A workers, said his organization is taking precautions. When it charters buses, it leaves seats empty. It is also flying some people north on commercial airlines to minimize travel time. On grocery outings, it is using vans rather than buses.

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The Washington Growers League is only partially filling its housing camps for seasonal workers, allowing more space between people, according to executive director Mike Gempler. That, he added, will not be possible when more workers arrive.

Gempler said the organization is also stepping up cleaning efforts. Because of shortages, it has made its own sanitizing supplies and is using lots of rags.

What will the state allow?

When the governor issued his stay-at-home order March 23, he required essential businesses to implement social distancing and sanitation measures outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor and the state Department of Health.

But those guidelines lack specificity. “Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment and other elements of the work environment,” reads the Labor Department guidelines. “Does that mean every day?” the Northwest Justice Project’s Besso asked. “Does that mean once a month? Who’s going to do it?”

State health department guidelines — a “first iteration” created “to get something out there,” according to Todd Phillips, the department’s environmental health and safety director — allow sick and healthy workers to sleep in the same room, on opposite sides.

“I can’t possibly go tell workers this is acceptable,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the advocacy group Community to Community. She and Phillips were speaking at a teleconference of a state committee on agricultural work, subsumed with discussing the COVID-19 crisis.

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Farmers agree separate housing is needed for the sick, and the state is coordinating with counties to set up isolation quarters. WAFLA has turned over a housing camp in Okanogan County for this purpose.

Proposed new rules, shared in early April with the committee, come from L&I. Members on all sides criticized it as a confusing mix of mandates and suggestions. For instance, the document says employers “must” keep workers 6 feet apart, but then gives “ideas” of spacing people out and holding smaller meetings.

“At best, the guidance mandates general end goals without requiring specific actions; at worst, it is merely aspirational,” says a letter from worker advocates.

They also question whether the rules will be enforced. It’s a complaint-driven process, and L&I concedes it has limited staff to investigate.

Grower groups say if some of the items in the document are truly mandates, they may not be practical.

Hot water for hand washing at all work sites would be “impossible to achieve in field locations,” reads their letter. It suggests, instead of a 6-feet rule on buses, passengers sitting in every other seat, and continuing to use bunk beds by creating barriers around the sides.

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Rosella Mosby, co-owner of Mosby Farms in Auburn, and a committee member, said all this was happening on top of preexisting economic forces hurting growers. Labor and other costs have gone up. Prices for goods haven’t. “We’re already going into this on the edge,” she said, and now the coronavirus is shrinking markets.

“We want everyone to stay healthy,” she stressed. The family farm, which grows vegetables and employs 20 people year-round and more during harvest time, has locked the warehouse to keep out visitors, put hand sanitizer by all the doors and kept a distance among workers as much as possible, she said.

She’s counting on workers to take precautions on their own time as well. A diabetic, she and her family are at risk, too. “At the end of the day, we all need each other.”

Still, she worries some proposed mandates, such as major changes to housing or packing lines, could bring business-ending costs. What about using personal protective equipment instead to mitigate risk, she asked. It’s good enough for health care workers, so why not agricultural?

Alejandro Sanchez, a special assistant to Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state is trying “to get to a place where advocates are satisfied on both sides.” But urgency limits time for debate. “It’s all happening extremely quickly,” he said.

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