For the past year, masks, plastic shielding, temperature checks, tests and endless rounds of sanitation have been the main weapons deployed in an effort to protect employees at the Kershaw Companies fruit processing plant from the coronavirus pandemic.
That struggle soon will enter a new — and hopefully decisive phase — as the 300 men and women who now process apples, pears, cherries and other fruit at the plant northwest of Yakima, and the 280 workers laboring in company orchards, become eligible for vaccines. The vaccine will not be a job requirement but will be strongly encouraged through a cash bonus and a paid hour off to get a shot.
“We finalized our plan in February when we knew that it was slowly going to become available,” said Chafeka Abdellatif, human resources manager for Kershaw. “Our foreign workers, our domestic workers — anyone who wants to get it will get $100.”
These employees are part of a broad wave of front-line workers in food processing, agriculture and the seafood industry who — regardless of age — are eligible to be vaccinated Washington in a campaign that kicks off Wednesday.
This new immunization push — which also includes workers in public transit, corrections and grocery stores, along with pregnant women and those with disabilities that put them at high risk — comes as vaccine supply expands. Most restaurant workers are not yet eligible.
Employers are networking with health care providers to try to quickly reach the workers at the backbone of our food production and distribution system, who are often laboring in remote areas without access to easy transportation.
Providers also are thinking about how to persuade workers to get vaccines, even those who may be reluctant.
The workers who become eligible Wednesday have helped feed the nation during a harrowing 12 months when outbreaks sickened and killed some within their ranks. Washington health officials recorded 117 COVID-19 outbreaks in food manufacturing and 159 in agriculture. Staffing shortages also forced slowdowns or temporary shutdowns of processing plants.
In early May, Yakima County was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots, with the highest infection rate on the West Coast. Some workers in fruit processing plants walked off the job amid concerns about safety and the lack of hazard pay. The county’s per person infection rate in late May climbed to roughly quadruple the statewide average, before receding closer to statewide trends.
With farmworkers, “we know this is one of the communities, one of the sectors most disproportionately impacted from COVID,” said Katie Meehan, Equitable Policy and Access Manager for the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s clear from our outbreak data.”
Foreign farmworkers have become an increasing presence in Washington agriculture. More than 20,000 are recruited to the state each year under H-2A temporary work visas and live in housing that employers are required to provide. Most arrive in the spring and stay through fall, and some already are in Washington to assist with pruning fruit trees, among other tasks.
They typically live in bunkhouse or other group quarters, and travel to the fields and orchards together, putting them at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19 should they become infected with the coronavirus.
“They can’t harvest remotely,” said Lori Kelley, Senior Director of Quality at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. “What we saw with them last year: They live, eat, work, sleep and get COVID together.”
Jesús Hernández, the CEO of Family Health Centers, which often serves farmworkers in Okanogan County, said agricultural communities were not prepared for COVID-19 and waves of infection in 2020.
“We were not ready to deal with what was happening — maybe nobody was. We had people living in conditions that really exposed them to the virus and we had some deaths among farmworkers,” Hernández said. This season, there’s been more time to plan, and a new tool in game-changing vaccines.
“The sooner we get to those folks, the less need for hospitalizations and other burdens on workers as well as the health systems,” he said.
Industry officials and local health organizations lobbied Gov. Jay Inslee throughout the winter to step up the priority for front-line workers.
“These workers are so essential — for our economy and our food — that we need to protect them,” said Carlos Olivares, CEO of Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. “We have been pushing hard.”
As seasonal farmworkers arrive in waves this spring, growers are working with a network of public health officials, community health centers and state contractors to test and then vaccinate as many workers as possible.
The goal is to provide testing and protection as quickly as workers arrive, which will often require meeting workers at group housing sites or the farms, themselves.
The state health department has contracted with Medical Teams International for rapid testing.
Jason Rogers, a manager with the Oregon-based humanitarian organization, said the group usually receives about 27 hours’ notice from employers as workers cross the U.S.-Mexican border.
“We get a line list that shows when people cross and when we can expect to receive them in Central Washington,” Rogers said.
Medical Teams International offers six mobile teams to meet arriving groups of workers and provide 15-minute tests for COVID-19.
From Jan. 12 through March 5, the contractor administered 5,358 tests in Washington state. Only 16 came back positive, according to Leslie Aaron, of Medical Teams International. Rogers said the company is working to finalize a contract with the state to provide mobile vaccination services, too.
Community Health Centers, which serve the uninsured and other patients regardless of their ability to pay, will play central roles in vaccinating agricultural workers.
The federal government last month began boosting vaccine supply to community health centers, including some in Washington state.
Hernández said the Biden administration was relying on community health clinics to reach under-resourced communities, and in Washington many of these organizations have longstanding relationships with guest workers and farmworkers.
Hernández, of Family Health Centers, recently ordered 800 doses from the federal government, including some for farmworkers in Okanogan County.
The Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which had vaccinated more than 37,000 people at its clinics, pop-ups and mass vaccination sites as of last week, will also rely on federal supply for planned mobile and pop-up clinics to visit farm and warehouse workers.
Olivares said fully staffed mobile units could use federal supply to vaccinate as many as 500 to 1,200 people each day. Olivares said his team is coordinating with about 25 farms to schedule visits. They will also visit warehouses.
In Wenatchee, the Columbia Valley Community Health will be sending out a mobile trailer with a doctor and support staff.
“Our highest priority will be the congregant work housing but we will also probably end up doing vaccinations in packing sheds and food banks,” CEO David Olson said.
In addition, the Chelan-Douglas Health District also plans arrange for worker visits to the mass vaccination site in Wenatchee, according to health administrator Luke Davies.
Davies said most growers have been eager to arrange for vaccinations.
“They want their employees to be happy, healthy and safe. They want to make sure, come harvest time, they’re not having interruptions in harvest or leaving fruit on the vine or the tree,” Davies said.
At Kershaw Companies, managers currently have about 75 employees from Mexico on the payroll holding H-2A visas, which allow foreign nationals to reside in the U.S. as temporary agricultural workers. Many of those employees appear eager to get the vaccination.
“They are probably among the most vocal. They said, ‘is this for us, too?’ ” And I said yes, absolutely,” said Abdellatif, Kershaw’s HR manager.
Some of the younger H-2A workers appeared less interested, but Abdellatif is hopeful the incentive pay will overcome any reluctance. So far, more than 140 of Kershaw’s orchard workers have signed for a vaccination clinic scheduled for March 23 at the company’s processing plant site, Abdellatif said.
The state health department will use state workers and contractors to fill any gaps in vaccine coverage for farmworkers, said Michele Roberts, its acting assistant secretary.
Washington’s seafood industry also has been working with state health officials to expedite vaccination. The biggest harvests unfold off Alaska, where remote locations and close-quarters working conditions compound COVID-19 risks.
Outbreaks on vessels working off Alaska have forced companies to pause fishing and steam to port. They also caused temporary closures at shoreside plants in Alaska, including a monthlong shutdown of Seattle-based Trident’s plant in Akutan, where more than 40% of 706 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Feb. 10 announced that vaccines would be made available to both resident and nonresident seafood workers. But a clinic at the port of Dutch Harbor has struggled to obtain enough doses to vaccinate some 8,000 workers in the Aleutian Islands area, according to Dr. Ann Jarris, of Seattle-based Discovery Health, which is assisting the seafood industry in vaccinations.
Discovery Health also operates a vaccination site at Pier 90 in Seattle, which can help seafood industry workers at they depart or return to Alaska or prepare for Northwest harvests.
In Central Washington, health leaders expect they’ll need to change some people’s minds about the vaccine, and have outreach efforts planned.
Hernández said workers often make trips into Brewster and other towns to cash wage checks and send money home, and it’s a good time to approach them with flyers and information.
Workers at Family Health Centers are well-positioned to fight against vaccine hesitancy, which has been fueled by online misinformation in many communities, including among some Hispanic workers, he said.
“We are the ones often taking care of those folks when they come to the clinics. We have a lot of employees who speak the language,” Hernández said.
Last Thursday, The Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic partnered with the local Catholic diocese to hold a vaccination event in Spanish. Clinicians inoculated Bishop Joseph Tyson with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He spoke to those gathered in Spanish, encouraging vaccination.
Tyson told The Seattle Times: “My message is very simple — it’s not a sin to take the vaccine.”