During Pandemic, Farmworkers Kept Their Jobs And Raised Risk Of Infection
On May 30, David Cruz died of COVID-19, before he could finish remodeling his Yakima home. Cruz, 60, had only replaced about a quarter of the old darkened roof tiles with clean green ones. Old gutters lie in his backyard waiting to be replaced. His wife, Reyna Cruz, and four children have taken over repainting the interior of their house.
About a two-hour drive east of Seattle, Yakima County in rural Washington has the most COVID-19 cases per capita among West Coast states. Those cases originate from two hot spots: long-term care facilities and agriculture.
But it’s apples and cherries that make up the backbone of Yakima’s economy and has kept farmworkers like David exposed to the coronavirus.
David was a hard worker, Reyna says, taking on projects at home after logging long hours at Allan Brothers Fruit, a fruit growing, packing, and shipping company in Naches, Wash. He built boxes for apples at the end of the packing line there for more than 10 years.
“He’d always be on time,” Reyna says of her husband of 21 years. “He never misses his job. He never. Sometimes he feeling sick, and I tell him to stay and he said ‘No. I’m going.’ ”
Long before David got sick with COVID-19, when the pandemic first came to Yakima in March, Reyna says he started to reconsider going to work. Coworkers started getting sick.
“He told me, ‘I’m scared to go to work.’ I said, ‘if you’re scared, you stay. You stay in the house. You’re not going. Forget about the bills.”
Those bills kept David at work. He decided to isolate himself from Reyna and their kids to protect them, “because he’s scared to infect everybody,” Reyna says. Even so, when he got sick in mid-May, he brought the coronavirus home and infected Reyna and three of their four daughters.
In Yakima, agriculture employs about a third of the workforce. Most of those farmworkers are Latino.
Allan Brothers CEO Miles Kohl says his company is doing all it can to keep workers safe, installing plastic piders between workers, handing out masks, and shutting down the production line to clean more often.
But farmworkers everywhere are still at risk, he says.
“I wish the American public could appreciate that the agricultural community, that workforce, is continuing to work, putting themselves out in an environment by just being out of the home where they have a higher likelihood of having an exposure,” Kohl says.
Because of that likelihood, hundreds of farmworkers went on strike for weeks this spring at seven of Yakima’s fruit packing facilities, demanding protective supplies like masks, gloves, disinfectant and plastic piders between workers. They also demanded a $2 per hour increase in to their $13.50 an hour pay, to make up for lost income and rising expenses.
All strikes have been resolved. David Cruz died while some were ongoing and workers took note. They placed altars in his honor in front of Allan Brothers, the Yakima Health District and the local office of the Department of Labor and Industries.
Farmworkers union Familias Unidas Por La Justicia (FUJ) has helped organize the worker strikes and connect them with legal advisors. Edgar Franks is their political director. He says weak emergency rules for agriculture have broader consequences for Yakima.
“If we’re looking to have a healthy, productive economy, it depends on a healthy and viable workforce,” Franks says. “If there is nothing being done to protect these workers, it has the potential to crash the whole economy, along with causing a health crisis.”
The state of Washington has issued safety guidelines for fruit packing facilities, telling employers to hand out masks and install plastic piders between workers. Franks worries the state isn’t doing enough to enforce the rules.
Agricultural employers are doing everything they can to keep up and implement evolving guidelines, Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association says. But how these facilities implement them can vary.
“Some already have made transitions to more automated processes, so they already have fewer staff on their lines,” DeVaney says. “Others have had more difficulty making those adjustments. And everyone has struggled to get enough protective equipment.”
That’s a difference the Cruz family saw from up close. Reyna works in the packing line at Highland Fruit and her experience there was a big contrast to what she heard from David about precautions taken at Allan Brothers early in the pandemic.
“People get infected and they’re working like nothing happened,” Reyna says. “The other warehouse, I’m glad I work there, because they protect everybody. Masks, covers, piders, everything. And I told David, ‘they don’t do anything?’ and he told me ‘no.’ ”
Some Yakima companies, like Allan Brothers, are also asking the Yakima Health District for feedback on safety measures they’ve put in place.
But other large employers with positive cases are concerned they may lose a large percentage of their workforce if wide-scale testing found more employees with COVID-19, according to health officer Dr. Teresa Everson.
“We have had a number of employers who have either declined our on-site support and/or refused testing when recommended, which is incredibly frustrating as a public health official,” Everson says. “At some point, we’re going to need to have consequences for employers who choose to turn a blind eye on an outbreak that they may have on their facility.”
It’s hard to say exactly how many fruit packing facilities have outbreaks and how big they are. But Everson says an indirect measure may be how the coronavirus is impacting Yakima’s Latinos.
“A large amount of our agricultural workforce is Hispanic or Latino. It is very clear in Yakima County that they are bearing the brunt of coronavirus infections,” Everson says. “They are just under 50% of our population for the county and over 60% of our infections.”
Statewide, Latinos make up 13% of Washington’s population but 42% of its cases.
The essential workforce here is much bigger than in other places — about 63% of worker. And according to a survey conducted by the Yakima Health District, only a third of residents wear masks in public.
That’s a lot of people potentially exposed to the virus who could take it to neighboring counties.