YAKIMA — Last week, after 19 years  working at a fruit warehouse, Rosalinda Gonzalez walked off the job. This week, she spent her days on a sidewalk outside the plant, where she held a yellow sign that read:  “Our Health is Irreplaceable.”

Some of her friends from work are home sick, or in the hospital, after testing positive for the coronavirus and falling ill with COVID-19. Some have joined her on the picket line.  Many still are working at the plant, yet she appears to bear them no grudge. She offers smiles and a wave as they drive past her  — horns honking —  during an afternoon shift break at Columbia Reach Pack.

“I am not angry because I know they want the same thing, but they are afraid to lose their jobs,” Gonzalez said.  “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But right now, it doesn’t matter to me because I got to make change. For us.  For our people.”

Even as the new coronavirus ebbs in many Washington counties, the pandemic surges in Yakima, prompting increased efforts by state and local officials to try to slow the spread. This week, a team of eight state Department of Health and two federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials deployed to the county, conducting tests and making site visits.

In Yakima County, the per capita cases of COVID-19 have climbed to about 1,000 per 100,000 residents, nearly quadruple the statewide average. Nursing homes were an early epicenter of the pandemic, but food-processing facilities also are now a major focus for health officials. Nearly 500 of the more than 2,630 positive cases in the county are men and women who work in agriculture industries, including processing most of the state’s signature apple crop, which in 2018 was worth more than $2.2 billion to growers and ranks as one of the state’s top 10 exports.

 

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Yakima’s Latino population has been increasingly hard hit by the coronavirus. They account for 64% of positive cases.  As the the county’s cases climbed in April, when masks in some warehouses were still in short supply, the health risks helped unleash a wave of  workplace activism among some of the men and women who process the county’s farm and orchard bounty. Gonzalez, 41, says her protest also reflects deeper, longstanding concerns about a lack of respect from supervisors.

Rosalinda Gonzalez walked off her quality-control job at the Columbia Reach fruit  warehouse in Yakima on May 14, and spent this week on a picket line. Striking workers across the area want more-stringent safety measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, as well as hazard pay. So far, 29 workers at Columbia Reach have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Yakima County Health District.  (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
Rosalinda Gonzalez walked off her quality-control job at the Columbia Reach fruit warehouse in Yakima on May 14, and spent this week on a picket line. Striking workers across the area want more-stringent safety measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, as well as hazard pay. So far, 29 workers at Columbia Reach have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Yakima County Health District. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

The workers’ decision to withhold their labor comes as federal dollars pour into the private sector in a massive relief effort that has yet to include any money to help compensate these essential workers, and the lack of hazard pay amid  the pandemic  has emerged as one of the main points of contention.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pushing to keep fruit and vegetable processors operating at normal levels through the summer harvest season. In a May 18 memorandum ,the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the Defense Production Act could be invoked to keep plants open, even if that mean overriding closure actions called for by state or local officials.

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“While the FDA will continue to work with state and local regulators in a collaborative manner, further action … may be taken, should it be needed to ensure the continuity of the food supply,” said the joint statement released by Mindy Brashears, an Agriculture Department undersecretary, and Frank Yiannas, a  FDA deputy commissioner.

Labor complaint

In Yakima County, thousands of workers are employed by more than 30 fruit-packing warehouses that sort and package most of an apple crop that last year yielded more than 5.5 billion pounds of marketable product.

Earlier this month, hundreds of employees, many making the state’s minimum wage of $13.50 per hour, walked off the job from more than a half-dozen fruit warehouses.  Many have returned to their jobs. Those who have stayed on strike call for a $2-an-hour hazard-pay raise. They also want assurances of improved workplace safety, raising concerns similar to those expressed at grocery stores and other essential industries.

Early on, striking warehouse workers formed committees to negotiate with management. As of Friday afternoon, their protests continued in front of four plants, and a sole worker picketed a fifth.

At Naches-based Allan Bros. and other warehouses, union officials often have joined the picket lines.  Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, says that warehouse workers have not asked for union representation although “that is one option that has been discussed if there is a breakdown of negotiations.”

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Though not in a union, the workers have some protection under federal law. On Thursday, Columbia Legal Services attorneys, on behalf of a worker negotiating committee,  filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Allan Bros. engaged in unfair tactics that included disciplining a worker who provided water to picketers and threatening and interrogating striking workers.

Miles Kohl, chief executive of Allan Bros., disputes the allegations. He said the company had not interrogated or threatened striking workers, or those who walked off and then returned to the warehouse.

“We understand and value our workers’ right to protest,” Kohl said.

Safer conditions

Two Allan Bros. employees in protective gear sort apples Thursday in Naches. Allan Bros. is a fruit-growing, packing and shipping company.  (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Two Allan Bros. employees in protective gear sort apples Thursday in Naches. Allan Bros. is a fruit-growing, packing and shipping company. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)

This spring, as the coronavirus reached the warehouse workforce, managers scrambled to improve safety. They installed  barriers between workers who were too close together, improved cleaning procedures and tried to secure  personal protective gear, although some warehouses struggled with weeks of delays in receiving shipments.

Local health district officials, who have made a series of consultation visits to the warehouses, say there now appears to be enough masks, including washable masks provided this month by state government.  They also noted an increase in protection and increased social distancing. “We have been very impressed with the ingenuity,” said Mary Cowan, a Yakima County Health District environmental health specialist.

On a Thursday tour of Allan Bros. by a photographer with the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Times’ sister newspaper, workers wore both masks and face shields. The were stationed along the processing line, separated by plastic dividers framed by PVC pipe.  Some of the boxing stations were shut down to increase distance between workers, which were part of changes that Kohl later said slowed plant output by about 30%.

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A cafeteria that previously seated 240 people now had a limit of 50, with flyers urging social distancing taped along the walls.

A Columbia Reach official, in an earlier interview, said that warehouse has made many changes and closed its packing line for several days at the end of March and early April to improve cleaning techniques and make a plan for social distancing.

But in April, as the pandemic intensified, these protections were still a work in progress.

Striking workers from Allan Bros. and Columbia Reach describe a difficult period when masks were in short supply. Some people brought  homemade masks; others  opted not to wear them.  Even with barriers in place, some workers at Columbia Reach described cramped conditions where their backs were close by other people, so they risked breathing on them if they turned away from the line to sneeze.

Meanwhile, people fell ill with COVID-19.

They include a 64-year-old  man who worked at Columbia Reach. He is hospitalized, and the doctors have taken him off a ventilator and expect him to die, according to his younger brother, who also works  at the plant but walked off the job May 14.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” said the younger brother, who like some other workers quoted in this story asked not to be identified out of fear of losing their jobs. “I am not angry at the company, but I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

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As of last week, the local health district listed 29 employees from Columbia Reach with COVID 19, and 18 from Allen Bros.

Some workers from the two warehouses have made complaints to  the Department of Labor and Industries, which has since followed up with inspections of both companies.

Kohl, of Allan Bros., said he was told the company was meeting the state guidelines regarding safety regulations.

Mike Fauk, Gov. Jay Inslee’s deputy communications director, said  “neither investigation has been finalized.” He said  the governor is working with advocates and employers “to further clarify safety requirements … We hope to have more to say about this work in our office next week.”

Hazard pay

As the strikes wear on, money is a big sticking point in the negotiations.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Yakima-based Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said the pandemic has disrupted sales in overseas markets. That means less income for warehouse owners whose safety measures will be under a kind of stress test in the weeks ahead as employment rises to handle a highly perishable cherry crop.

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Some warehouses have offered bonuses, and Allan Bros. offered a temporary $1-an-hour raise. But the  warehouses have balked at the workers’ request for the $2 raise through the course of the pandemic.  “The strikers will say, ‘I feel safer if I’m paid more.’ but from an industry perspective they are different issues. You can’t exchange money for safety,” DeVaney said.

Workers say safety is a key issue, along with hazard pay, and a commitment to longer-term bargaining over wages.

“We need more protection and we need a raise in our wages,” said a woman who spent several weeks at home after testing positive for the coronavirus, then came back to work at Allan Bros. before walking off the job May 7.

This demand also has been made by farm labor advocates who have repeatedly asked the Trump administration and Congress to  direct some of the federal aid dollars to those working in the fields and food plants.  The $3 trillion stimulus bill passed recently by the House does include $200 billion to offer “pandemic premium pay” to essential workers, including those who work in the apple-processing industry.

The House bill appears doomed to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate. But the hazard-pay provision might still make it into compromise legislation.

Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse voted against the House bill, blasting it as a “socialist wish list” in a statement released last week. But Newhouse, whose family orchard operation is in Sunnyside, a Yakima community with one of the highest case rates of COVID-19, favors federal funding of hazard pay.

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“I believe Congress should continue to empower our agricultural businesses to provide for their employees through these unprecedented times,” Newhouse said in a statement.

The strike line

Allan Bros. employees Maribel Medina, left, and Cesar Traverso, right, began a hunger strike May 19 at the Allan plant in Naches. Some other Allan workers have been on strike since May 7 because of safety concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.  (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Allan Bros. employees Maribel Medina, left, and Cesar Traverso, right, began a hunger strike May 19 at the Allan plant in Naches. Some other Allan workers have been on strike since May 7 because of safety concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)

On Friday, Gonzalez was back on the picket line with several dozen other Columbia Reach strikers.  She has a leadership role as a member of the five-person negotiating team. There had not been much progress on negotiations this past week, and she was waiting to hear back from management later in the day.

Gonzalez’s  warehouse job, where she now checks the quality of stored apples, has consumed most of her adult life. She hopes she will go back to work.  But she has thought about a career change if things don’t work out.

In the meantime, she wants to stay healthy.

Earlier in the week, the state Department of Health had set up a coronavirus testing site outside the plant. She was one of 187 workers who participated, and expects the results as early as this weekend.

“I’m nervous but I think I’m going to be fine.”

The staff of the Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this story.