Fearing the spread of Covid-19, workers strike at three fruit facilities in Washington State

Workers at three fruit packing facilities in Washington State have gone on strike to protest what they say are inadequate protections against the spread of Covid-19. The strikes come as outbreaks of the virus continue to spread throughout facilities where the nation’s food is processed, from meatpacking plants to produce packing houses.

Some workers at the Allan Bros. apple and cherry packing facility in Naches, Washington, have been on strike since last Thursday. The workers decided to strike after claiming they were not provided personal protective equipment, hand-sanitizing stations, or hazard pay despite knowing of several co-workers who had contracted Covid-19.

“People are trying to respect the social distancing call that has been made by the governor, [but] it’s not being enforced on a lot of the lines,” says Edgar Frank, political director at Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworker organization based in Washington that is supporting the striking workers. “They’re afraid of getting sick at work and then bringing it home.”

On Tuesday, workers concerned about exposure to Covid-19 also walked out at Jack Frost Fruit Company in Yakima and at Matson Fruit Company in Selah, according to Frank and reports on social media.

Allan Bros. and Jack Frost did not respond to requests for comment. Jordan Matson, manager at Matson Fruit, said in a statement that the company “look[s] forward to meeting with the group’s representatives to see what steps Matson Fruit Company can implement to increase everyone’s safety while abiding by local, state, and federal law.”

All three facilities are located in Yakima County, which is the top agricultural county in Washington and home to a $2-billion farm industry. The Yakima Valley is known for pear, cherry, apple, and hop production, and thousands of farmworkers are employed by the region’s orchards and packing facilities. Yakima also had the highest rate of Covid-19 cases of any county on the West Coast as of May 6.

Yakima’s demographics have changed dramatically in the past two decades, as the Latino population has grown from a small percentage to nearly half of the area’s residents. Some Latino residents have experienced discrimination as the region diversifies.

At the Allan Bros. facility, Frank estimates that between 50 and 70 workers have been joining the strike actions each day. The striking workers, most of whom are Latino, are demanding a $2-per-hour pay raise in addition to enhanced sanitary precautions. At Jack Frost, approximately 80 workers walked out on Tuesday demanding testing of all workers at the plant, among other measures.

In a video posted on social media on Monday, the fifth day of the Allan Bros. strike, Ramon Torres, the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said the workers had reached out to the state Department of Health and Department of Labor and Industries for support, but have not yet heard back.

“We have tried to talk to them since Friday,” Torres said in the video, speaking in Spanish. “We are asking them to come, since there are many problems here and they are not heeding our requests.”

The DLI could not be reached for comment, and the DOH did not respond to a request for comment.

In April, United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO, and Familias Unidas por la Justicia sued Washington State for not producing mandatory guidance for agricultural employers on how to protect their workers. Since the suit, the state has proposed but not yet finalized emergency rules for preventing the spread of Covid-19 at agricultural operations.

Some of those striking at Allan Bros. have worked at the facility for as long as 15 years, Frank says. Despite their long tenures, some are still concerned they could face retaliation from their employer for walking out.

“They are concerned that … if they try to go back, they won’t have their job anymore or that they’ll be punished in some kind of way — verbal abuse, given harder jobs,” Frank says.

But they are speaking out in an attempt to avoid the scale of crisis currently seen in the meatpacking industry, where over 200 plants across the country have reported outbreaks. An ongoing analysis by FERN found that as of May 12, over 13,300 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 52 have died.

“It’s time for the management to see the work that we are doing and how we are risking the health of our families to be here,” said a worker striking outside the Matson Fruit plant in a video posted to social media on Tuesday, speaking in Spanish. “So, here we are, and we are not going to leave.”