Living In The Pits Political Fight Over Housing Leaves Cherry Pickers In Squatters’ Camps

FOR THE RECORD: 7-29-97 Not state-licensed: The status of closed migrant worker camp in Royal City, Wash., was reported incorrectly in a story in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review. The camp is not licensed by the state.

Marco Rantonio and Efigenia Clemente huddle around dirt, flies and urine in this squatter’s camp, trying to make a home.

Their shelter, cobbled together from a tattered blue tarp and twigs, is trim and shaded. Containers of soup, fruit and Advil are shelved on tree branches. Crushed cardboard boxes the married couple uses as a mattress are precisely aligned.

Order in the camp, nestled in an elbow of the Columbia River in Grant County called Sentinel Gap, is rare as summer rain. Gunfire is nightly entertainment for the encampment of beer-drinking single men - “solteros” - a few feet away.

“No, this is no good,” said Rantonio, a slim 23-year-old with a wispy goatee. “We are scared at night. There is nowhere to go.”

The young couple from Acapulco, Mexico, are part of the 16,000 migrant workers who swarm over Eastern Washington each summer looking for quick paychecks from the cherry harvest. This year, they also found surprising squalor.

Many workers discovered the safer, more sanitary camps in growers’ orchards closed this harvest, the consequence of political squabbling and a lawsuit in Olympia, 250 miles away.

As a result, living conditions for migrant workers in Washington were worse this season than they had been in years.

“This is not what you would expect to find in a civilized country. This is what you’d expect from people leaving Rwanda,” said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, who has been active in migrant farm worker issues for a decade.

The lawsuit accuses the Washington Department of Health of ignoring its own safeguards on migrant workers’ health and safety.

“The state does not have the will to stand up to the growers and say, ‘Do the right thing,”’ said Nancy Pacharzina, the Seattle lawyer who filed the suit this spring.

Health officials acknowledge the filthy camps breed high risk of disease, even death. They know there was a typhoid outbreak among migrant workers last year. They know thousands use untreated water drawn from the Columbia River for drinking, bathing and washing dishes.

Health officials are trying a new tack, hoping to coax growers into providing shelter by easing regulations. Growers are not required to house workers, making it a hard sell.

The strategy backfired this year. Fewer growers provided camping space, sending more workers to hazardous camps like Sentinel Gap.

“The state and federal government has never done what it needed to for farm worker housing,” said Natalie Gonzalez, who inspects migrant camps for the Department of Health.

Growers blame fear and confusion over the lawsuit and shifting state regulations for the worsening conditions.

“Growers got gun-shy,” said Jan Mathison, a Wenatchee cherry grower. “Everything is changing so much, people are putting their hands in pockets and waiting this one out.”

Each says they have interests of workers in mind as they point fingers and await the class-action suit’s September trial date.

From early June to the end of July, 75,000 tons of cherries are picked, packaged and carted from 290 Washington cherry orchards.

It’s a $106 million-a-year industry, and no other state produces more sweet cherries, from Bings to Rainiers.

Cherries are a risky crop. One in five harvests is a bust. In bumper crops, such as this one, profits are fat. The industry is lucrative enough to be growing rapidly; hundreds of acres of newly planted orchards freckle Grant County alone.

The fruit must be picked within 48 hours of ripening, an unusually short harvesting window. Pickers rarely stay in the same orchard for 10 days. After one orchard is stripped, pickers swarm to the next, a stuttering northbound road trip from the earliest crop in Oregon to the latest in the Okanogan Valley.

Housing for migrant farm workers for other crops, including apples and asparagus, is in short supply, an estimated statewide deficit of 38,000 beds.

But cherry worker housing is scarcest. Growers say it’s too expensive for the short picking season. “How far should I go in debt for one week a year?” said Wenatchee grower Roberta Carr.

Cherry growers like to keep workers in camps, saying it makes them more efficient. But they are not required by state or federal law to provide housing, and if they do, federal and state health and safety laws apply.

Licensed camps are sometimes no better than unapproved ones. An approved camp in Royal City, Wash., was shut down when inspectors found no drinking water, workers living in boxes and human feces in the orchard.

When the official camps close, workers are left with unsavory options. Riverside camps are dirty and dangerous. A migrant worker last year drowned in a drainage ditch under suspicious circumstances. Knife fights are not uncommon. Health officials dread a major disease outbreak.

Rentals are scarce, and rents skyrocket in the summer. One entrepreneur divided single-wide trailers in his Mattawa park into four tiny rooms. There are no locks on the doors and puddles of sewage outside. Monthly rent is $300.

“Thieves go into the rooms,” Rantonio said, using an interpreter. “There, it’s worse than here.”

State policy to encourage migrant worker housing has fluctuated as widely as cherry prices.

Five years ago, the state took the moral high ground on the grower-provided camps, demanding framed housing that met building codes. Farm worker lawyers applauded. That policy failed when growers refused to make expensive improvements, and the squatters’ camps boomed.

Two years ago, the Health Department fell from the high ground. It decided to ease regulations, conceding that tents could do for cherry pickers.

Legislators last session approved a bill that encouraged permanent housing by easing building codes. Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the bill, saying it “fails to address the basic living conditions of the workers and their children.” Farm worker advocates applauded.

Despite the flip-flops, several growers opened camps and built expensive shower houses. One spent $100,000.

But many more shut down camps. No growers in the Mattawa area, rich with sprawling orchards, opened camps. During the cherry season’s peak in early July, more than 300 workers squatted at Sentinel Gap.

Health inspector Gonzalez, responsible for licensing cherry camps, admits frustration. Last year, 24 growers opened the state-approved camps. This year, the number was 17. Only one out of 10 migrant cherry workers lived in licensed camps.

“I would like to see houses for everyone,” said Gonzalez. “But for two or three weeks, with all the homeless in this state, is that sound policy?”

Washington Health Secretary Bruce Miyahara calls his department’s policy a “lab experiment” which keeps workers from the worst conditions. “It’s not realistic to think that you can snap fingers and change 30 years of history,” he said.

“The state has totally copped out and fell into the demands of the industry,” said Lupe Gamboa, Washington director of United Farm Workers of America.

“This is a $100 million-a-year industry. There is the ability to (improve housing), there just isn’t the will.”

Migrant workers, he said, live an average of 48 years, earn about $10,000 a year and suffer more from disease and on-the-job injuries than the average worker.

Charlotte Blanchard, a Grant County health inspector, empathizes with some well-intentioned growers, but calls camps like the one at Sentinel Gap “the dirty little secret of the industry.

“How you could call yourself an ethical person and look the other way when your workers are staying in such dire conditions?” she asked.

Les Dorsing is a third-generation Royal City cherry grower with sun-bleached hair, mirrored aviator shades and rural charm.

He concedes that some of his workers - “his friends”- often live in squalor. He briefly banned workers from camping in his 200-acre orchard, fearing a lawsuit.

But last spring, he built the $100,000 bathhouse anyway, and quickly learned how complicated “doing the right thing can be.” In addition to satisfying local and state building inspectors and health officials, Dorsing was required by federal law to build wheelchair-accessible toilets and showers.

If he hadn’t built the bathhouse, he couldn’t have opened a camp. “And we would have had to send them down to the river,” Dorsing said of his workers. “I’d hate to do it, but I have no choice. I can’t open myself up to a suit.”

That’s a red herring, farm worker lawyers say. They’ve filed just a handful of lawsuits in the last five years.

But the few filed spooked growers, heightening fears of providing housing. The most startling was a $70,000 judgment against a Wenatchee grower, Nolan Carlson, which found him personally responsible for conditions in his camp.

“The message should be clear: operators of temporary worker housing cannot blithely ignore health and safety standards,” U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald wrote in his decision last November.

The tale of Manuel Ayala’s 15 years of migrant work is written on his scarred hands. At 42, he’s nearing the end of his career, one that earns him about $7,000 a year picking cherries, asparagus and apples.

This year, Ayala left his wife and daughter in Lindsay, Calif., fearing the camping conditions he found. After a grower banned workers from setting up camp in his orchard, he lived for 20 days in a public park in Benton City, Wash. The Columbia River was his bathtub.

A few miles away, Norm Gutzwiler, head of Wenatchee’s Bluebird Grower’s Cooperative, a packing house, is organizing a community camp for workers.

The camp will be funded by several growers, providing clean, sanitary tents and showers to hundreds of workers picking fruit in nearby orchards. It’s a rare solution lauded by advocates, growers and state officials.

“These conditions are brought on by quibbling, arguing agencies,” said Gutzwiler. “It has to be resolved in a reasonable manner, that above all keeps the workers in mind.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)


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