COVID-19 virus outbreaks from coast to coast, worker protests and complicated social-distancing logistics are realities of managing labor, with no clear end to the pandemic.
At least six companies in Washington’s Yakima Valley — including Jack Frost Fruit Co., Yakima; Allan Bros. Inc., Naches; and Matson Fruit. Co., Selah — have had worker protests in mid-May, with employees asking for safer workplaces and hazard pay.
Employers are using the growing supply of training resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Fresh Produce Association and other organizations to beef up safety protocols, such as temperature checks before and after work.
“Employers are really devouring the resources made available,” said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers Association, which represents California, Arizona and Colorado. “We’re certainly trying to be of help.”
To reinforce these measures, employers are conducting employee meetings and using posters in English and Spanish.
Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said employers are spacing out workers on buses, as well as beds at H-2A workers’ living quarters, provided by employers.
One company placed plastic shields between workers in the field, Marsh said, and another brought in pastors to counsel the workers during the stressful time.
“There have been a lot of changes in worker safety,” Marsh said. “It’s been a big shift in such a short time because this is so new.”
At blueberry and watermelon grower Coosaw Farms, Fairfax, S.C., H-2A workers no longer go to the grocery store on weekends, but instead have their orders taken for grocery delivery on-site, said owner Bradley O’Neal.
“The men have been extra good with this challenge,” O’Neal said. “The restrictions we put in place to keep a healthy environment has been quite a job. It is not simple.”
Scaroni Family of Cos., Heber, Calif., provides labor to growers through its Fresh Harvest division. The company employed 6,000 H-2A workers in 2019.
It has purchased 10 temperature scanners that can give temperature readings in a second, said Linda Scaroni Rossi, special projects manager in charge of establishing the protocol for the new technology. Two of the devices were installed by May 13.
“Because of the COVID-19 crisis, we thought it was important to monitor temperatures of employees every day, but handheld devices were taking 30 to 40 minutes of their time,” Rossi said.
The company is also communicating with workers on Facebook on how to take personal responsibility in social distancing, the proper way to wear a mask and other tips and information.
“One thing we learned from these workers is they all have a phone and use Facebook,” she said.
About half of Jack Frost’s 120-member workforce walked out in protest May 12, and company leaders met the following day with the group’s delegates to discuss concerns and plan to meet again, said Brian Bruner, operations manager.
The company met or exceeded government and health agency guidance, but is adding more bottles of sanitizer for workers to use in addition to the cleaning crews, he said.
“We’re worried for their safety during this process. It’s heartbreaking,” Bruner said. “We hope they do the same behaviors outside work as we’re requiring inside work. That’s going to keep us all safe.”
Keeping up with changing guidance is a critical, ongoing challenge, he said.
Matson Fruit Co. also met with protest delegates on May 13, Jordan Matson, co-owner and general manager, said in a news release.
“During the meeting, we learned of numerous safety and corporate cultural concerns. We have already begun implementing changes on both fronts,” he said in the release.
The Washington State Tree Fruit Association and the Yakima County Emergency Operations Center helped the company obtain cloth face masks for every employee, he said.
By May 14, Matson Fruit had three confirmed and three unconfirmed COVID-19 cases among all its facilities statewide, Matson said.
Allan Bros. did not return calls or e-mails for comment.
Activist organizations such as Farmworkers for Justice are encouraging demands for more money and are “taking advantage of the situation, to the detriment of the farmers and the farmworkers,” Marsh said.
Half of the 71 orchard workers employed by Stemilt Ag Services, Wenatchee, Wash., were positive for the virus without showing symptoms, according to media reports in late April. The Chelan-Douglas County Health District released a statement that the company was following recommended COVID control measures at work and housing sites.
All workers had returned to work by May 14, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt Growers marketing director. The company has been following all government health recommendations, he said.
“We have worked hard at social distancing, masks, housing and our total sanitation processes,” Pepperl said. “We have really put a lot of emphasis on communicating with all of our work force.”
Marsh said he doesn’t think the outbreaks or protests will cause a shortage in the fresh produce market as it has in the meat industry, where widespread illnesses had closed a number of plants — which are starting to go back online.