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Agricultural workers in Central Washington strike to push for greater virus protections

Agricultural workers strike this month in Yakima, calling for officials at Columbia Reach to enforce safety measures that will protect workers against COVID-19 and provide them with hazard pay during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Edgar Franks)

Workers in Central Washington’s fruit-packing industry have staged strikes and walkouts over the past few weeks in an effort to enhance safety protections against COVID-19 and to receive hazard pay.

While many of those labor actions are ongoing, one group of striking workers in Monston Fruit warehouse in Selah reached a labor agreement Friday.

Monson officials agreed to address concerns employees had about sanitation, social distancing enforcement and worker safety. Employees will continue to negotiate for a wage increase, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported.

Meanwhile, walkouts and strikes continue at six other fruit packing warehouses in Yakima County, which has an expansive agriculture industry.

More than 400 essential agriculture employees remain on strike but have yet to reach an agreement with their employers, said Edgar Franks political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent labor union for farmworkers in Washington. The union has been supporting workers on strike.

“These are essential workers, but their ability to do their job properly in a safe manner – that’s not being respected,” Franks said.

Workers need enforceable rules from employers, state agencies or even the governor to guarantee their safety, he said.

More than 70 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Yakima County, according to the Yakima County Health District. Warehouse workers have organized at least seven strikes this month throughout the county.

The Yakima Health District sent letters to several fruit-packing warehouses following site inspections and said the sites met health and safety guidelines, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. But workers say companies are not doing enough.

Allan Bros. Fruit Co. CEO Miles Kohl told the Herald-Republic that the company increased wages by $1 on May 5 and gave workers face masks and shields after a May 8 health district visit.

An Allan Bros. representative did not respond to questions from The Spokesman-Review by press time.

The Allan Bros. warehouse workers were the first to go on strike on May 7.

One of the striking workers, Angelina Lara, said the decision was motivated by a lack of protections and a lack of enforcement of social distancing rules. The workers reached out to Familias Unidas por la Justicia on May 8.

The workers filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday. The complaint alleges that the company interfered, restrained and coerced employees against exercising their rights, including disciplining and employee who gave water to strikers. Lara said some employees were fired or replaced because they went on strike.

Lara tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of the month and had to pay for the test and lab fees herself. She said the company told workers they would receive wages during the recommended two weeks of self-isolation, but Lara never received those and was told to file for unemployment.

There have been 23 confirmed cases in the company, according to community organizers.

Other warehouses are testing their employees and expecting them to be cleared before they can return to work, but that’s not happening here, she said.

“They never had consideration toward us when we got sick,” Lara said. “I don’t think the company really cares for their employees. They profit from us.”

Lara said workers have heard that the company is now giving employees face masks, but that they’re the disposable kind and workers are expected to use them for a week. The workers’ other demands haven’t been addressed, she added.

Workers at Columbia Reach have been on strike since May 14. Julieta Pulido, one of the striking workers, said workers had spoken to managers and supervisors about their concerns over unenforced social distancing and other safety precautions. But when nothing changed, she said, they went on strike. There are 30 positive cases in the company, according to workers.

A Columbia Reach representative did not respond to The Spokesman-Review.

“We are helping them get their production out,” Pulido said. “We want to work, and what we’re asking for is only fair.”

It’s stressful to go to work and worry about getting the virus or taking it home, she said. Workers sent a petition with their demands to human resources, but they haven’t heard back about whether their demands will be met, Pulido said.

Agricultural workers have always been overlooked when it comes to health and safety practices, said Brenda Bentley, direct action and vigils coordinator for Community to Community, a women-led organization advocating for farmworkers.

“We understand that people want to appreciate them by calling them heroes, but the way you can really appreciate people working like this is to stand up and speak out for their safety,” she said. “They don’t want to be sacrificing themselves because they’re essential workers.”