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How COVID-19 changed the lives of one 38-year-old farmworker and his family

Laura Muñoz video-called Eduardo, her husband, every day while he was thousands of miles away in Washington harvesting apples.

It was his fifth season as an agricultural worker through the H-2A visa program, this year for Washington Fruit and Orchards in the Othello area.

Eduardo Muñoz arrived in Washington in August.

Things were slightly different this year, with a novel virus threatening work. Masks and other protective gear were required on the job. Housing provided for H-2A workers, temporary agricultural employees who are in the United States legally, had to comply with new guidance from the Department of Health, intended to keep outbreaks at a minimum.

He managed to stay safe until mid-October, when he slipped on a piece of rotten fruit and hurt his wrist and ankle.

He filed a worker’s compensation claim on Oct. 8 and was recuperating in his flat from that injury. His roommate moved to another building during this time after displaying COVID-like symptoms.

Eduardo Muñoz was isolating in his room, as he rested his ankle and wrist, and he had no symptoms of the virus that week, according to Laura Muñoz.

Then on Saturday, Oct. 10, when she spoke with him, he complained of his arm hurting or not having a lot of strength in his right arm. At the time, Eduardo Muñoz thought he was just tired and needed to rest, not thinking that his arm could be a symptom of something more worrisome.

The next day, when Laura Muñoz video-called her husband, she discovered he was lying on the ground. He had fallen down in his apartment, which he shared with other workers.

He managed to answer the call but could barely move or talk. Muñoz said her husband was floating in and out of consciousness. She began yelling through the phone to try to keep him awake and hoping to alert anyone to his condition.

If one of his roommates had not come back early that day and called an ambulance, Laura Muñoz thinks her husband might have died.

Laura Muñoz was left in the dark for more than 24 hours and had no way of knowing whether her husband was going to survive.

Eduardo Muñoz was rushed to the Othello Community Hospital, admitted for stroke symptoms and a high fever. When doctors determined that he needed emergency brain surgery, he was airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center for the operation.

“I was in a panic the entire time because I didn’t know what was going on,” Laura Muñoz said.

On Monday, Washington Fruit got in touch with Laura Muñoz, and on Tuesday, after sending her husband’s three children to stay with their mother, the company flew her up to Washington to be with him. She arrived in Spokane, took an Uber to the hospital and saw Eduardo Muñoz just before he went into surgery.

COVID and stroke risk

Eduardo Muñoz, who is 38, had been healthy and strong enough to work long days picking apples. At home in Victoria City, Tamaulipas, about 400 miles north of Mexico City in eastern Mexico, he works in construction on aluminum windows and doors. Laura Muñoz had no reason to suspect her husband would have a stroke based on his medical history.

When he got to Sacred Heart Medical Center, Eduardo Muñoz was tested for COVID-19. His positive result came back shortly after he got out of surgery. Preliminary research has tied COVID-19 infections to neurological symptoms and an increase in the risk of stroke.

Doctors said that COVID-19’s pro-thrombotic state likely caused his stroke.

In a two-week period at a New York health system, five patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 in their 30s and 40s, some with no medical risk factors for strokes, were admitted for large-vessel strokes. Other studies confirmed similar findings in young COVID-19 patients in hospitals in New York, Philadelphia and Paris.

By fall 2020, enough research had been published for one neurologist in the Lancet to say that “data supporting an association between COVID-19 and stroke in young populations without typical vascular risk factors, at times with only mild respiratory symptoms, are increasing.”

“We believe that, in otherwise healthy, young patients who present with stroke during the pandemic, the diagnosis of COVID-19 should be thoroughly investigated,” a neurologist from New York wrote in the Lancet. “Conversely, in patients with mild COVID-19 respiratory symptoms, a low threshold for investigation for stroke should be maintained if they present with new neurological symptoms.”

For Eduardo Muñoz, his stroke meant a long hospital stay, then rehabilitation at St. Luke’s, then another brain surgery.

His right side was paralyzed, which made walking virtually impossible, and he was suffering from aphasia, or difficulty to comprehend and formulate language, due to his brain damage.

Community supports become a lifeline

Laura Muñoz speaks no English and was not prepared for the cold of fall in the Pacific Northwest. She quite literally had nowhere to go. The hospital was able to put her up in a hotel room for a few nights, but once Eduardo Muñoz tested positive for COVID-19, she could not even stay with him or see him at the hospital.

She had access to a translator at the hospital, and through the cousin of one of the nurses attending to her husband, she got connected to Latinos en Spokane, a community-based nonprofit that works to connect the region’s Latino population to services and resources.

Laura Muñoz got referred to Jennyfer Mesa, one of Latinos en Spokane’s co-founders who helped her find shelter with local community members, access to food and resources.

Latinos en Spokane wrapped their arms around the Muñoz family. Laura Muñoz stayed with Mesa, then other community members willing to host her. Volunteer “comadres” from Latinos en Spokane brought her food and winter boots, and clothes to stay warm.

The work of several volunteers in the community to help feed, transport and house the couple as Eduardo Muñoz went through treatment and surgeries kept them afloat.

Anngie Zepeda, program manager at Latinos en Spokane, helped them find an attorney through the Northwest Justice Project, and she helped them with their paperwork at the hospital and beyond. She also sent “community comadres,” or volunteers, to help Laura Muñoz get to grocery stores or pharmacies, as well as bring food.

Guadalupe Gutierrez helped the couple, driving them to the bank or Walmart when she was not working as a caregiver. Gutierrez, who volunteers in community groups from church to Latinos en Spokane, knew how terrifying the whole process might be for Laura Muñoz.

“I cannot imagine being in another country talking to doctors and not understanding anything,” Gutierrez said.

She helped the Muñoz family sign paperwork at the hospital and the bank, and this process alone took a lot of time. Since Eduardo Muñoz could not use his right hand, he had to sign with his left hand, she said. Laura Muñoz would write the letters big on a piece of paper to remind him what he needed to print.

With Eduardo Muñoz’s new physical limitations, Laura Muñoz has had to take on a lot of the caregiving .

And while Laura Muñoz worked previously, her husband‘s work was the family’s primary source of income. And now that Laura Muñoz cannot work because she is taking care of him, their family income is stretched and very limited.

While they were still in the area, Latinos en Spokane helped raise funds for them. Laura Muñoz made a lot of tamales for a fundraiser and was able to sell them all in an hour, raising $500 for her living expenses, and for Zepeda, that was a great example of how the Spokane community showed support for a couple who really needed it.

“That was amazing. I was really happy in that moment because I really appreciate when the community really wants to support someone who is found in a bad situation,” she said.

Latinos en Spokane also helped Laura Muñoz apply for some grants, connecting her to the Northwest Justice Project and ultimately starting a GoFundMe page.

Community donations and those grants ended up being all they had access to while Eduardo Muñoz went through therapy, then another surgery in early December.

Eduardo Muñoz stayed in the hospital for about 25 days initially, his wife estimates, then was discharged to stay with her in a supporter’s home.

The fight for pay

Compounding the family’s problems is that Washington Fruit denied Eduardo Muñoz’s worker’s compensation claim for his wrist and ankle injuries, which meant he went unpaid for several months.

In December, when he was able to submit another claim, he asked Washington Fruit to compensate him for his COVID-19 illness and subsequent stroke care. This legal battle is ongoing .

The stroke and subsequent brain surgeries have left Eduardo Muñoz partially paralyzed on his right side, and he requires a wheelchair to get around. He lost a lot of his ability to hold conversations, too. At this point, he can respond with short phrases and understand some of what’s being said.

Laura Muñoz hopes therapy will help him learn to speak again, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to walk normally .

The Department of Labor and Industries has the last word on worker’s compensation claims in Washington, unless a company decides to appeal to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals or even the superior court in the county where the injury occurred .

Carmen Hargis-Villanueva, with the Northwest Justice Project, is helping represent Eduardo Muñoz in his fight to get worker’s compensation, which ballooned from a case to get back pay for missing work due to an ankle injury to one that includes paying medical bills Hargis estimates will be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

H-2A workers pay into the worker’s compensation program as part of their contract to access partial wage replacement or coverage if they get hurt on the job.

Eduardo Muñoz filed a worker’s compensation claim for his stroke and COVID-19 diagnosis on Dec. 15.

On Jan. 7, the Department of Labor and Industries directed Washington Fruit to pay Eduardo Muñoz for his time loss payments while his claim was being adjudicated, but Hargis and Laura Muñoz said he was not paid.

On Jan. 22, L&I told Washington Fruit to pay for the time loss payments and for the medical treatment costs, but the company asked the department to reconsider, Hargis said.

On Feb. 3, L&I again affirmed its initial determination: Washington Fruit must pay for his medical expenses and time loss payments.

As of press time, Washington Fruit had not paid Eduardo Muñoz, according to both the Muñoz family and their attorney.

Washington Fruit did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The company can appeal L&I’s decision to the Board of Industrial Appeals in the 60-day time period following the Feb. 3 decision, and if they lose their appeal, they can appeal again to the superior court.

In other words, the Muñoz family may not have a resolution for a while.

Hargis said the company could fight the circumstances around which Eduardo Muñoz caught COVID-19, as well as the fact that the stroke was “likely” caused by the virus, according to the doctor.

The immediate problem was that he and his family were cut off from their main source of income for months, while incurring enormous medical bills.

“(Washington Fruit) should have been paying for that time off,” Hargis said. “They were homeless, with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and it’s only because of Latinos en Spokane that they weren’t.”

Also, Eduardo Muñoz’s impairment is currently preventing him from working in the United States, as well as in his manufacturing role back home.

“Because he got injured at this job, he’s not going to be able to work at his other job,” Hargis said.

Outbreaks at farms

Agriculture, farm and food processing companies and facilities have been incredibly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks.

As of Nov. 10, the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector had the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases of any industry, second only to health care.

The Department of Health estimated that 11% of the state’s total cases were connected to the agriculture sector, with more than 3,200 cases confirmed by Nov. 10.

For Hispanics in Washington state, cases were highest among the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector as of late last year.

Hispanic residents in the state have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, with case rates four times higher than white and Asian residents in the state and hospitalization rates for the virus five times higher than white populations.

L&I has investigated and fined several work sites throughout the pandemic for not complying with public health guidance and recommendations.

At Gebbers Farms in Brewster, two workers died from the virus, and L&I fined the company more than $2 million for “24 egregious willful violations,” including not reporting one of the deaths of their workers due to COVID-19. This is one of the largest health and safety fines the state has ever issued, according to a department statement.

Gebbers has appealed the fine to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.

As of November, L&I had issued fines to more than 20 farms statewide. It had issued two citations, one with a small fine, for Washington Fruit last year.

An L&I investigation found that Washington Fruit was charging employees for masks when they left theirs at home or lost theirs. While the company was not fined for this, they were violating the rule that employers offer masks to their employees at no cost.

Washington Fruit was also fined $1,500 for not distancing their sinks in some kitchen and bathroom areas.

COVID claims

Zaira Sanchez, emergency relief coordinator with the United Farm Worker Foundation, said her organization did phonebanking this fall with farmworkers throughout the Pacific Northwest to survey them about their working conditions.

She said the majority of the responses they received were positive, but one question was often repeated: how to get sick pay if they needed to isolate or had contracted COVID-19.

This was certainly an issue for Eduardo Muñoz, Hargis said, and he didn’t know he could file a claim related to his COVID-19 diagnosis and stroke until December.

The Industrial Insurance Act allows for a worker to file a claim if there was an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their occupation, a documented or probable exposure to the virus at work and they can identify a specific source or event during the course of their employment where they were exposed.

These standards are the same ones Eduardo Muñoz’s claim met, according to L&I’s determination, although Washington Fruit so far disagrees, according to Hargis.

Sanchez said that while UFW staff can help workers figure out how to file a claim, some back out.

“To really move a complaint forward you have to give relevant information again, and people decide not to because they are afraid of retaliation,” she said.

Early in February, Laura and Eduardo Muñoz made the decision to return to Mexico. He had recovered from his second surgery well enough to travel, and with donations from the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition and Latinos en Spokane, their flights back home and a new electric wheelchair for Eduardo were paid for.

Being home is not easy for Laura Muñoz, who still cannot return to work because she is taking care of her husband. He gets emotional when work is brought up – he knows how his family relied on him and is visibly upset when he is reminded that he can’t provide for them like he used to.

Laura Muñoz said she’s gone to one local hospital seeking treatment for him, as he will need some therapy to work on both his speech and his movement. She would have to pay out of pocket, however, and money is tight since she is not working. She hopes the settlement or payments from Washington Fruit materialize soon.

“It’s very important so we can continue our lives and continue therapies for him,” she said.

For now, however, they are stuck in limbo.

If Washington Fruit chooses to appeal by early April, appeals can then take months.

Local community members who helped the Muñoz family are hoping for a good recovery for Eduardo Muñoz, but also that he can get his medical expenses and payment covered.

“I want some justice for Eduardo because he came to the United States healthy, and he had to go home like that,” Zepeda said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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