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YakTriNews KAPP-KVEW: Farm workers’ unions fighting for ‘enforceable rules’ for workplace COVID-19 precautions

Posted: May 5, 2020 9:03 PM by Emily Goodell

Yakima Agriculture

YAKIMA, Wash. — More than 200 agricultural and food production workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Yakima County, which has the highest rate of infection in the state due to its large essential workforce.

While the state released guidelines last month regarding preventative measures against COVID-19 in agriculture and food processing warehouses, farm workers unions are advocating for further measures to protect those working to bring food to tables across the country.

“Much of the protections that these essential women and men need to be able to do their job, day in and day out, don’t exist,” said Erik Nicholson, National Vice President at United Farm Workers. “We’re receiving way too many reports from farm workers, from essential workers, that social distancing simply isn’t happening.”

State guidelines include having workers maintain social distancing when possible and using appropriate sanitation, but Nicholson notes that those are recommendations, not rules; there’s no enforcement and no penalties for non-compliance.

Nicholson said the guidelines don’t include provisions about safety measures for workers’ transportation, an issue for those who live in workers’ housing and who are traveling to work sites via bus.ADVERTISING

With upward of 60 percent of Yakima County’s workforce deemed essential and many of those being agricultural and food production jobs, local health officials have been working on ways to slow the spread in those areas.

“That’s really been our focus over the last few weeks,” Yakima Health District spokesperson Lilian Bravo said.

As of last week, health officials reported at least 240 agriculture and food production workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, officials said additional work is needed to prepare for the arrival of potentially thousands of seasonal agriculture workers.

The health district has also identified a cluster of more than 50 positive cases among employees at Washington Beef.

“Wherever there’s not an opportunity to have as much space, that’s just gonna be a higher risk overall,” Bravo said.

To combat the issue, the health district partnered with the Yakima County Development Association, the Grower’s League, Washington Tree Fruit Association and
the state Department of Labor & Industries to create a team dedicated to providing in-person help to local businesses with COVID-19 precautions.

A health district staff member and someone from a partner agency will go to the facility in person and look for measures employers have already taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

After the visit, officials provide, “recommendations for improvement in employee screening processes, increased physical spacing and the addition of physical barriers, as well as employee education,” according to the health district.

“Usually, people are very happy to have the team go on site and offer some additional perspective,” Bravo said.

While union representatives applaud officials and employers who are working hard to ensure workers’ safety, Nicholson said the lack of enforceable rules means those standards may not be consistent across the board.

“If we don’t get ahead of this, who’s going to be available to work in the fields?” Nicholson said. “My deep rooted fear is that the food system may shut down.”

Nicholson pointed to the issues with the Tyson beef plant in Wallula, Wash., which was forced to temporarily close after at least 250 of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.  Similar shutdowns across the country have led experts to anticipate a potential meat shortage.

United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por La Justicia have filed a lawsuit against the state, asking the court to demand that officials create strong emergency rules with enforceable standards that will ensure farm workers across the state are consistently protected.

“Our plea to them, given the essential nature of the work that is happening in agriculture, given the ridiculously high per capita rate in Yakima County, please, please, please do better,” Nicholson said. “Protect these women and men and issue binding rules now.”