by Sandy Robson
May 30, 2020
On May 28, 2020, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference, during which he discussed a proclamation that he asserted would, “improve our health and safety guidelines for the hard-working people of the agricultural industry.”
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) Director Joel Sacks appeared at that same press conference, remarking, in part, “…we want employers to know that we have a consultation group, so if they need help figuring out the best way to protect workers, we’re here and we’re ready to provide assistance. We’ve provided consultations to dozens of employers and we stand ready to help even more employers and growers.”
Information regarding the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat to agricultural workers at Yakima County growers and packing companies is being disseminated by a number of various sources: the growers and packing companies and the associations promoting them; public agencies tasked with overseeing the health and safety of those companies’ workers; and news outlets reporting on that information.
Sometimes the way that information is presented and how it is perceived by people, versus what is actually happening with companies and the public agencies entrusted with overseeing the health and safety of those companies’ workers, can give the public a false sense of security that problems are being handled. However, that is not necessarily representative of the reality facing the workers.
Agriculture has been a staple of Yakima County’s economy over the last century. The growing, storage, shipping and processing of deciduous tree fruits such as apples, cherries, and pears are at the core of Yakima County’s economy.
Yakima County, located in south central Washington state, leads the state in the production of apples, sweet cherries and pears. It ranks number one in the nation in the production of apples.
A far less desirable statistic in which Yakima County ranks number one is that it reportedly has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in Washington state. A key factor driving that high COVID-19 rate is the fact that agriculture is considered an essential business under Governor Inslee’s stay-home order.
The Yakima Health District website’s most recent data summary, updated on May 29, 2020, at 5:30 PM, shows there have been 3,502 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 89 deaths due to COVID-19 in Yakima County.
Agricultural and food processing workers concerned about adequate COVID-19 protections
According to the May 19, 2020, Morning Edition program broadcast on KNKX, a public radio station serving the Pacific Northwest, a third of the jobs in Yakima County, “are in agriculture and food processing. If you add to that workers in hospitals, local government, and in sectors supporting essential industries, that means that about two-thirds of workers in Yakima are considered essential.”
There have been strikes that have occurred at seven Yakima County fruit growers and packing companies over the last three weeks, and various news outlets have been covering those strikes. The striking workers have been seeking safer working conditions, increased transparency from companies regarding COVID-19 cases, and hazard pay.
Sorting through conflicting and inaccurate information
The process of the workers having asked Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent farm worker union based in Burlington, Washington, for help, and receiving that help and support, along with support from other organizations, enabled workers contemplating a strike to better understand what their rights are, and to make sure they will be provided with the protections they report are missing at the companies where they are employed.
In some of the news coverage, there has been confusing, sometimes conflicting, and even inaccurate information disseminated to the public about the degree of involvement, oversight, and actions of state and local agencies charged with safeguarding workers in terms of COVID-19 protections, and about some of the findings of those agencies. From research involving review of public records, and interacting with the participating public agencies, this seems to be indicative overall of problematic communications from those public agencies, as well as from companies and the associations promoting those companies.
The Yakima Herald-Republic reported in a May 22, 2020, article published online:
“Walkouts that started May 7 spread to six Yakima fruit packing operations. Workers demanded improved social distancing and sanitizing measures to protect themselves against the coronavirus, as well as hazard pay and salary increases.
“Inspectors from the state’s Department of Labor and Industries and the Yakima Health District cleared the companies, saying they meet the recommended guidelines.”
No source was provided in the article to substantiate that statement.
The Health District has said that based on what its agency observed when conducting site visits/consultations at the growers and packing companies it visited in Yakima County, prevention measures those companies have in place were meeting guidelines, according to public records recently obtained from the Yakima Health District by The Searchlight Review.
However, there has not yet been any substantiated evidence to show that L&I has, “cleared the companies, saying that they meet the recommended guidelines.”
Yesterday, May 29, The Searchlight Review contacted L&I’s director of communications, Tim Church, inquiring about whether L&I has conducted any inspections since March 1, 2020, related to COVID-19 concerns at any of the Yakima County fruit growers/packers at which there have been strikes by workers. Those companies are: Allan Bros., Matson Fruit, Monson Fruit, Roche Fruit, Columbia Reach, Jack Frost, and Hansen Fruit.
Church responded yesterday, via email, and provided a list of the operations at which L&I has conducted inspections (since March 1, 2020), related to COVID-19 concerns at Yakima County fruit growers/packers where there have been strikes by workers. He included the dates of the inspection and a brief description of the complaints which had prompted those:
“Matson Fruit Co. Selah – Inspected 5/14 regarding complaints about social distancing, no masks/selling masks, not disinfecting properly.
“Allan Bros. in Naches – Inspected on 5/18 regarding complaints about about social distancing, no soap, no masks or gloves.
“Hansen Fruit in Yakima – Inspected on 4/30, regarding complaints about social distancing, no masks or gloves.
“Columbia Reach in Yakima – Inspected on 4/30, regarding complaints about social distancing, no gloves or masks.
“Jack Frost in Yakima – Inspected on 5/13, regarding complaints about social distancing, disinfecting without training.”
Church said that no complaints were received by L&I and no inspections were conducted by L&I at both Monson Fruit and Roche Fruit.
According to Church, when L&I finishes an inspection, the agency holds a closing conference with the business, considers any final input, and then issues a “Citation and Notice” with the agency’s findings.
When asked yesterday in an email if any of the inspections which L&I conducted at the Yakima County growers/packers (listed above) are finalized and available to the public via records requests, he replied that while none are wrapped-up fully, some may be available by next week.
Ultimately, consistent with such information, the Yakima Herald-Republic updated its May 22 article yesterday, May 29:
“Inspectors from the Yakima Health District cleared the companies, saying they meet the recommended guidelines. The Yakima Herald-Republic has made a public records request for inspection results from the state’s Department of Labor and Industries but was told records would not be available until June 22. Tim Church, a spokesman for LNI, said some inspection reports — including at Allan Bros — have not yet been finalized.”
There is also an editor’s note at the bottom of the article which reads:
“Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Yakima Health District has completed reviews that found grower facilities to be meeting guidelines, with inspection results from the State’s Department of Labor and Industries still pending.”
What is L&I’s involvement with Health District’s COVID-19 technical assistance team?
An example of how confusing, sometimes conflicting, information can be passed on to the public about the degree of involvement, oversight, and actions of state and local agencies entrusted with safeguarding workers in terms of COVID-19 protections, can be found in a May 1, 2020, Yakima Herald-Republic article. The article reported the news that several organizations had partnered with the Yakima Health District to provide on-site technical assistance to businesses which are operating under the state and local stay-home orders.
The formation of the COVID-19 technical assistance team was in response to an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases by local employers, according to the article, which also explained that the team has focused on the agricultural and food production industry, which back at that time, had at least 240 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19. According to Yakima Health District records, as of May 21, that agricultural and food production industry COVID-19 confirmed positive case number climbed to over 400.
The May 1 article also had reported:
“The district is working with the Yakima County Development Association, the Washington Growers League, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association and the state Department of Labor & Industries to staff the team.
“The team, which will have a Yakima Health District staff member and a representative from one of the partner agencies, will make in-person visits. While on-site, the team will observe a businesses’ infection protection measures in their operations. After the visit, the Yakima Health District will provide recommendations for improvement in employment screening, physical spacing and barriers and employee education.”
In the public records The Searchlight Review has, so far, obtained from Yakima Health District, there did not appear to be any written communications or documents showing interactions with L&I relating to any of the Health District’s site visits/consultations at the Yakima County fruit growers and packers which were named in the records requests. Those fruit growers/packers named in the records requests were: Allan Bros., Matson Fruit, Monson Fruit, Roche Fruit, Columbia Reach, Jack Frost, Hansen Fruit, Jewell Apple Ltd., and Brandt and Sons.
That prompted The Searchlight Review to contact, via a May 27 email, Ryan Ibach, the Health District’s chief operating officer who is also the agency’s public records officer, asking him two questions based on the information presented in the May 1 Yakima Herald-Republic article and in the public records that had, so far, been released to The Searchlight Review:
1) Is L&I part of the Yakima Health District’s COVID-19 technical assistance team that was described in the May 1 news article referenced above?
2) If yes, can you please specify what L&I’s actual involvement consists of, and has been, in the COVID-19 technical assistance team?
Ibach replied, via email, on that same date, and said:
“L&I is only involved when we have a business that we are concerned about and is not cooperating. Then we team up with L&I to get into the door to see what measures are being taken by the employer and offer suggestions/recommendations. We partner with L&I because they have the regulator [sic] authority on workplace issues. We have only had to use L&I for Evans Fruit.”
The Searchlight Review also contacted L&I director of communications, Tim Church, via email on May 27, asking him the same two questions about the Yakima Health District’s COVID-19 technical assistance team that was described in the May 1 Yakima Herald-Republic news article.
Church replied, via email, yesterday, May 29, and said that L&I is “providing technical assistance to the local health district [Yakima Health District].” He added, “We have a person on their group, which includes a variety of representatives, that is regularly communicating to share information and coordinate efforts.”
Church said he is not sure he would call it a team, but that it is definitely a “well-coordinated effort.” He said, “Mainly, it involves technical assistance, and coordination of efforts, especially when we may have overlapping responsibilities, or have efforts underway involving the same businesses or sites.”
However, as mentioned above, Yakima Health District’s Ryan Ibach stated in an email that the Health District “only had to use L&I for Evans Fruit.” Evans Fruit was not one of the companies that had any workers on strike.
In looking at the response from Ibach in terms of what he said that L&I’s involvement consists of, and has been, in the COVID-19 technical assistance team, and comparing that to Church’s response to the same question, it’s somewhat confusing and seems to be contradictory.
Add to that, the fact that in the records The Searchlight Review obtained from the Health District, there were no written communications or documents showing interactions with L&I relating to any of the COVID-19 technical assistance team’s site visits/consultations at the Yakima County fruit growers and packers listed in the records requests, it is then difficult to get a clear and full picture of L&I’s actual involvement with that team.
Why L&I’s level of involvement with COVID-19 technical assistance team is important
The significance of L&I’s level of involvement with Yakima County’s COVID-19 technical assistance team is important in order for the public to clearly understand whether agricultural and food production industry workers are really receiving the swift, proper attention and actions needed from the agency assigned to protect them which has the regulatory authority to take enforcement action to ensure the safety and health of those workers.
The Yakima Health District does not have such regulatory and enforcement authority. In response to an inquiry, Ibach had told The Searchlight Review last week in an email:
“These consultations are voluntary and not required. These are not enforcement consultations but rather educational consultations to offer guidance and recommendations to the employer to minimize the possible spread of the virus to the employees.”
Ibach explained that the Health District is working together with other agencies/organizations, which include L&I, Washington State Tree Fruit Association, Yakima County Development Association (a private organization), Washington State Department of Agriculture, Yakima Valley Chamber of Commerce, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He added, “It is important that the collaboration exists to make the consultations possible as YHD [Yakima Health District] is not the regulatory authority in facilities that we are currently doing consultations.”
Clear and accurate information is critical during this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Hopefully the public will scrutinize the information being circulated by the growers and packing companies and the associations promoting that industry, the public agencies tasked with overseeing the health and safety of those companies’ workers, and the media outlets reporting the news about that industry (including The Searchlight Review).
The workers desperately need the public to apply that scrutiny in order to make sure that companies and public agencies are doing everything in their power to protect the health and safety of agricultural and food production industry workers who are working on the front lines during this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The recent strikes at multiple Yakima County growers and packing companies have proven to be instrumental in bringing attention to the real and present dangers that the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat presents to workers when performing their jobs at the growers and packing companies where they are employed.