Fruit-packing workers strike, and Washington State strengthens Covid-19 protections

After several weeks of strikes by workers at six fruit-packing facilities in Yakima, Washington, and a number of outbreaks of Covid-19 in food production and processing plants, the state will require stronger protections for agricultural workers.

The new protections, which Gov. Jay Inslee announced on May 28 and which take effect June 3, require agricultural employers to provide all workers with personal protective equipment at no cost, ensure physical distancing or barriers between workers when distancing is not possible, place hand-washing stations at regular intervals among workers, and implement sanitation and distancing on employer-provided transportation.

The requirements expand on a prior guidance which worker advocates had criticized because it was voluntary and confusing, according to a lawsuit brought against the state by three unions on April 15. The May 28 announcement applies to orchards, farms, dairies, fruit and vegetable packing houses, and employer-provided transportation and housing, but not to meatpacking plants or other food processing facilities.

There have been nearly 500 cases of Covid-19 among Yakima’s agricultural workers during the pandemic. Latinos comprise over 60 percent of the Covid-19 cases in Yakima County, which has the highest infection rate and second-highest number of cases in Washington State.

Hundreds of workers walked out of six fruit packing houses in May, including Allan Bros., Jack Frost, Roche Fruit Company, Monson Fruit, Matson Fruit, and Columbia Reach. As FERN reported in May, the striking workers alleged they were not provided with adequate PPE, hazard pay, or other protections from the spread of Covid-19. Most of the strikes have ended, but as of Tuesday the strike at Matson Fruit was in its 22nd day, according to a social media post by the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. On May 20, Jordan Matson, a manager at the packing house, said in a statement to press that the company had met with striking workers over 15 times.

FERN has tallied 11 Covid-19 outbreaks in the Yakima area at food facilities, including at six orchards (Evan’s Fruit, Gilbert Orchards, Highland Fruit Growers, Legacy Fruit, Stadelman Fruit, and Zirkle Fruit), four fruit packers (Columbia Reach, Columbia Valley, Olympic Fruit, and Yakima Fruit and Cold Storage), and one meatpacking plant (Washington Beef).

Farmworker groups are divided on the state’s new requirements for agricultural employers. A representative from the United Farm Workers said at the press conference announcing the requirements that they “go a long way in addressing many of the issues that farmworkers have consistently raised with us, and for that we are deeply grateful,” according to a report from the Seattle Times.

But others have been critical that the proclamation did not prohibit the use of bunk beds in worker housing, which was also allowed in the earlier, voluntary regulations. In a letter to Gov. Inslee on May 20, Columbia Legal Services, a legal advocacy group in Washington, wrote that the use of bunk beds could expose workers to the spread of Covid-19 and that the rules’ provisions on bunk beds were based in “bad science.” According to a Seattle Times report, the fruit industry has lobbied for the continued use of bunk beds.