Strikes continued at six Yakima Valley fruit-packing houses Monday, though not without some pushback.
Hansen Fruit workers had to relocate after the company prohibited activity at a previous site, said Edgar Franks, political director at Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworkers union based in Skagit County. Workers moved to an area in front of the plant.
Workers are seeking, among several things, more assurances that officials are following social distancing and cleaning procedures, and hazard pay.
The union has been in the Yakima Valley since May 8 to assist workers in strikes, which started last week. However, the union and other groups supporting the strikes said workers at individual plants are leading the strikes. The plants do not have unions.
Meanwhile, at Allan Bros. in Naches, strikers had to find new places to park their cars after a nearby public park became unavailable, Franks said.
Workers are also striking at Monson Fruit and Matson Fruit in Selah and at Frosty Packing and Columbia Reach Pack in Yakima.
Neither Hansen Fruit nor Allan Bros. returned phone calls or emails requesting comment Monday. The plants are operating.
Allan Bros. CEO Miles Kohl previously said the plant closed for several days to evaluate its COVID-19 response. The closure came after listening to workers’ concerns on May 7, when workers started their strike. During the closure, the company invited the Yakima Health District to evaluate the company’s safety measures, Kohl said.
The company also distributed new face shields when the plant resumed operations a week ago.
Hansen Fruit president and owner Eric Hansen said last week in an emailed statement that the strike came as a shock as the facility had no confirmed cases of COVID-19. He also said the company has provided personal protective equipment to employees free of charge as it became available, restricted hiring to prevent exposure from workers at facilities with COVID-19 cases, and intensified cleaning efforts.
There were also some people expressing opposition to the strikes at the sites. At Monson Fruit in Selah, Rick Messer waved a sign in support of the fruit company on Monday.
“If you could get inside, you’d see how good they are at cleaning the building. That was before the virus,” said Messer, who said he worked at the company previously and said he applied to work for the upcoming cherry harvest.
Franks said workers have reported company officials walking outside and taking photos of striking workers. He said he has encouraged workers to remain firm and calm.
Worker committees from each of the fruit-packing houses met Monday afternoon to discuss strategies and also to encourage each other, Franks said.
“We’re just telling people to be vigilant and document everything that’s happening,” Franks said.
There was also strike activity from orchard workers for Brandt and Sons in Wapato, Franks said. However, the activity ended after a few hours when workers agreed to talks with the company.
Brandt and Sons did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The actions at individual businesses have not affected the state’s apple shipments overall, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
During the week ending Sunday, the state shipped 2.624 million 44-pound boxes. The week before, the state shipped 2.627 million boxes. Both weeks were above the weekly average of around 2.6 million for the 2019-20 apple crop.
Any reduction in shipments from a fruit warehouse due to the worker strikes, for now, seems to be made up in activity at other facilities, DeVaney said.
Also, those warehouses had dealt with interruptions before as they implemented social distancing and cleaning in response to COVID-19.
“Those kinds of disruptions of packing had occurred,” he said. “Now, there are (interruptions from) protests rather than any other issues.”
Tree Top resumed operations at its Selah plant early Monday morning, said Allison Arnett, director of corporate communications for the company.
The plant is not operating at full capacity, but that is a product of production demand and not COVID-19, Arnett said.
The Selah-based processor closed the plant on Thursday after learning of its second positive COVID-19 case. The closure allowed time for the plant to receive a thorough cleaning. Tree Top also closed the plant for several days on May 7 after its first positive COVID-19 case. Both employees are at home recovering.
All employees were notified about both cases either through e-mail or through the company’s internal website, Arnett said. The Selah plant produces apple juice and sauce.