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WA Farm, Fruit-Packing Workers in Fight for Health Protections

Workers at seven fruit-packing companies in the Yakima Valley are on strike. (Edgar Franks/Familias Unidas por la Justicia)
Workers at seven fruit-packing companies in the Yakima Valley are on strike. (Edgar Franks/Familias Unidas por la Justicia)
May 19, 2020

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Farm and fruit-packing workers are considered essential. And in Washington state, they're roiled in struggles for better working conditions.

Yakima County is the biggest hotspot for coronavirus cases on the West Coast, and the fruit-packing warehouses in the area have been a vector for the disease. Last week, workers at seven companies went on strike against unsafe conditions.

Marciano Sanchez, organizer with the Washington state farmworkers' union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, has been at protests alongside workers.

"They end up being really afraid because they're out there working without protections knowing that if they end up getting the coronavirus, it's pretty dangerous," Sanchez said. "And on top of that, they have to go back home where they have families and they don't want those families to get infected either."

Earlier this month, Familias Unidas, United Farmworkers of America and Community to Community Development sued state agencies to get transportation and workplace safety rules in place for farmworkers. Last week, a Skagit County judge decided to wait to order the state to implement rules because the state's attorney said they are coming soon. But the judge says he's continuing to monitor the situation.

Andrea Schmidt is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services representing the plaintiffs and said they're making progress.

"We feel like the lawsuit has been successful in that when we started pushing for these protections, the state had no plans to put out rules to protect farmworkers in this situation," Schmidt said.

But Schmidt said workers still are struggling for safe conditions, especially in Yakima Valley. She said workers are being called greedy for asking for hazard pay, even though other industries already are doing this.

"It's astounding that workers who are putting their lives on the line to produce our food would be vilified for asking for a way to have a little more in the bank for a time when they get sick," she said.

The companies involved say they have been working to implement safety standards as new guidelines emerge. The general manager at one facility, Monson Fruit Company, said they purchased 500 gallons of sanitizer and hired a sanitation team to clean the warehouse.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA