Commentary: State must do more to protect farmworkers’ health

State health and labor agencies must do more to enforce laws meant to protect workers during the pandemic.

By Guadalupe Gamboa, Rebecca Saldaña and Rosalinda Guillen / For The Herald

Farmworker David Cruz was 60 years old when he went on strike in early May to demand protection and hazard pay from his employer, Yakima-based Allan Brothers Fruit.

By May 30, he was dead from COVID-19.

In a desperate attempt to protect his family, Cruz had been self-isolating. “He (was) scared to infect everybody,” his wife, Reyna, said later. Despite Cruz’s precautions, Reyna and three of their four daughters also became ill.

Thousands of other farmworkers and their families face the same deadly working conditions. Farmworkers walked out of five other Yakima apple warehouses demanding safety measures such as hand-washing facilities with soap, face masks and physical distancing in the crowded lines.

The workers went on strike out of fear: fear of contracting the virus, fear of dying, fear of infecting their families.

These fears were well founded. Yakima Health District records from this time-period indicate that Allan Brothers had 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Twenty-four other apple facilities in the county had documented COVID-19 outbreaks with 595 confirmed cases.

These strikes received high-profile coverage in Yakima Valley media, including images of workers with picket signs declaring “Our health is indispensable!” and “We are worth more than your apples.” Despite these pleas for help, no effective action was taken by the state agencies responsible for safeguarding their health: the departments of Health or Labor and Industries.

After the virus outbreaks, the Department of Health contacted all agricultural employers in Yakima County and offered to train them in safety procedures for working during the pandemic. Only a handful of apple companies agreed to safety consultations. DOH states that employers were afraid safety consultations would uncover outbreaks at their facilities causing them to lose workers. Operations continued as usual.

DOH and L&I failed to inform workers at facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks about these outbreaks. Neither of these agencies undertook targeted outreach programs in Spanish to inform the largely Spanish-speaking community of agricultural workers of their COVID-19 rights.

Yakima County has the highest of number of confirmed COVID-19 infections per capita of any county on the west coast. The county now has more than 10,000 COVID-19 infections and close to 200 deaths, even though it represents only 3.2 percent of the state’s population. Our state’s increased COVID-19 rates are driven by growing infections in the farmworker community.

L&I and DOH must take responsibility to protect our essential farmworker workforce by taking these actions:

1. Fund trusted community-based organizations and labor unions to conduct targeted outreach to farmworkers in labor camps and rural communities in their first language.

2. Fund and staff enforcement of emergency safety regulations recently issued by the state governing agricultural worksites, transportation and employer-offered communal housing. Employers must be made aware that the regulations are mandatory, that failure to follow them will result in penalties, including shutting down operations.

3. Strengthen farmworker labor camp housing rules to provide them the space and ventilation necessary to protect people in communal housing from highly contagious airborne pathogens. Regularly inspect housing for compliance with these rules.

4. Make public the names of farms, orchards, packing sheds and temporary worker housing locations with outbreaks, and specific safety orders with which they must comply in order to continue operations.

5. Implement sufficient mandatory testing of infected workers and co-workers and their families and contact tracing and isolation of those infected.

David Cruz and this state’s more than 200,000 farmworkers have strengthened Washington’s economy enabling it to become the leading producer of apples, cherries, asparagus, hops and many other fruits and vegetables. Let’s honor his life, and recognize the risk to farmworkers in this pandemic, by protecting these essential workers who put food on our table with meaningful state action.

Guadalupe Gamboa is an attorney and helped launch the united Farm Workers of Washington. State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, represents the 37th Legislative District. Rosalinda Guillen is a farmworker and rural justice advocate.

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