COVID-19 site visits at Yakima County fruit company fail to adequately protect workers

Screengrab taken from Evans Fruit Co.’s Tieton Plant Showcase video published on YouTube

by Sandy Robson

July 2, 2020

Washington state’s Yakima County has become a hot spot for coronavirus outbreaks, and fruit packing plants and growers there have been associated with a significant number of those.

The Yakima Health District website’s most recent data summary, updated on July 2, 2020, shows there have been 7,556 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 141 deaths due to COVID-19 in Yakima County.

One of the state’s largest fruit growers, Evans Fruit Company, located in Yakima County, has the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases, according to records obtained by The Searchlight Review from the Yakima Health District (YHD).

Evans Fruit Co. operations include fruit packing plants and over 8,000 acres with 11 ranches, two of which are over 2,000 acres each. The company is one of the largest apple growers in Washington state, and its three packing plant facilities are located in Yakima County, in Tieton, Yakima, and Cowiche.

YHD records show there are 200 employees at each of the three Evans Fruit Co. facilities, and as of June 30, there were 63 positive COVID-19 cases associated with Evans Fruit Co.’s facilities.

Yakima Health District’s Facility Outreach List chart showing COVID-19 case counts at food processing facilities in Yakima County as of June 30, 2020

A review of those YHD records, show that its agency received a hand-written complaint dated April 13, 2020, which read:

“To whom it may concern,
I am an employee at Evans Fruit Yakima located at 5002 Tieton Dr. We have been informed that one of our coworkers who showed symptoms and worked last week sick, and informed their supervisor about it has been diagnosed with a deadly COVID-19 virus. Also, one supervisor who pretty much walks around the whole place and talks to many of us has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus as well. They sent us home today to disinfect [facility] expecting us to return to work tomorrow for business as usual. We have not been provided with face masks all this time. We ran out of sanitizer days ago. We were told to bring it from home. We are scared, Please consider this an emergency.”

A May 12, 2020, email communication from YHD’s community health specialist, Erika Ochoa, sent to YHD’s environmental health director, Shawn Magee, informed him that the health district had received a voicemail the day before from an employee at Evans Fruit Co. on Tieton. The employee had reported that, “there has been at least five cases of COVID-19 and that many people missed work yesterday but that no one it [sic] informing them of the outbreaks and they are not cleaning/disinfecting properly.”

YHD records also show a May 12, 2020, email sent to YHD Public Health Nurse David Miller, from Deborah Ginther, Assistant Nurse Manager at Virginia Mason Memorial, Employee Health/Inspire Health Clinic, letting him know that when her nurses were screening all the people who were tested at drive-thru clinics, “it appears many warehouses are not requiring their employees to wear masks.”

Screenshot of a May 12, 2020, email sent to Yakima Health District’s Public Health Nurse David Miller, from Debbie Ginther, Assistant Nurse Manager at Virginia Mason Memorial, Employee Health/Inspire Health Clinic

She added, “They also are not notifying their employees that their coworkers are positive for Covid.” Additionally, in her email, Ginther said:

“I am not sure what the warehouse requirements are but CPC-Tieton, Evans Fruit Tieton, Congdon Fruit, and Apple King-Naches all have employees who are being tested for COVID-19 who have stated they are not provided masks and are working with sick coworkers not wearing masks.”

YHD’s David Miller then forwarded Ginther’s email to Shawn Magee.

Health District had to involve L&I to gain entry into Evans Fruit facility

Records show a May 20, 2020, email communication sent by YHD’s Magee to Brodie Edwards, who, according to his LinkedIn page, is listed as Food Safety for Evans Fruit Co. In his email, Magee said he was reaching out to see about YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team coming onsite to the company’s Yakima facility for an on-site visit to help with prevention measures, to look at what was going on with Evans Fruit Co.’s positive COVID-19 cases, and to talk about potentially testing employees in the event there was a “hot spot” in the company’s facility.

Magee told The Searchlight Review in an email that there was never a written response from Evans Fruit Co. and that he had to follow up with phone calls to speak with management/ownership of Evan’s Fruit. It was not clear from his statement whether or not he had spoken to management/ownership of Evans Fruit Co.

According to YHD’s chief operating officer, Ryan Ibach, the health district had to call on Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) in order to gain access for YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team to the Evans Fruit Co.’s Tieton facility since the company was not cooperating to give the health district access.

Ibach had explained in a May 27, 2020, email:

“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 authority on workplace issues.  We have only had to use L&I for Evans Fruit.”

YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team conducted a site visit/consultation at Evans Fruit Co. (Tieton facility) on May 1, while simultaneously L&I conducted an inspection there after receiving a referral by YHD.

L&I’s communications director, Tim Church said in a June 15 email, “We conducted an L&I inspection that was separate from the health district visit.” He added, “We opened an inspection at the Tieton location on May 1, 2020. It was based on a referral from the Yakima County Health District regarding possible COVID-19 issues. We found no violations.”

While L&I found no violations after conducting its May 1 inspection at Evans Fruit Co.’s Tieton facility, according to Church, L&I did find violations during inspections at other Evans Fruit Co. operations in March and April, and assessed penalties. Church provided The Searchlight Review the following information in an email:

“We opened an inspection at the Sunnyside [ranch] location on March 16, 2020. We were there after receiving a referral. The allegations were related to issues concerning pesticide application, sanitation, and tractor safety. We found some violations. They were cited for four general and two serious violations. The total penalty was $8,100.

“We opened an inspection at the Cowiche location on April 8, 2020.  It was based on referrals we received about safety issues involving COVID-19. We did not find any COVID violations, but did find violations related to forklift drivers not wearing seatbelts, and workers not wearing eye protection when refueling propane tanks.  The total penalty was $13,200.

“We opened an inspection at the Cowiche location on April 16, 2020 from a complaint about pesticide and sanitation issues. We found no violations”

In a March 9, 2020, article the Yakima Herald-Republic had reported that more than a dozen Evans Fruit pesticide sprayers in Sunnyside walked off the job on March 6, because of safety and wage concerns.

Health District’s site visit follow-up letter sent to Evans Fruit

After each site visit/consultation is conducted by YHD, the agency sends a follow-up letter to the company it visited. The  15 follow-up letter sent to Evans Fruit Co., signed by YHD’s environmental health director, Shawn Magee, stated in part:

“Based on what we saw there have been efforts to implement COVID-19 prevention measures in the facility, but it is strongly recommended you implement the measures outlined in this letter. The above recommendations are more things you can do to help stop the spread further.”

Because the follow-up letter YHD sent to Evans Fruit Co. did not state that the company was meeting guidelines, it indicates that the facility was not meeting the guidelines.

Screenshot of page 1 of Yakima Health District’s May 15, 2020, site visit/consultation follow up letter sent to Evans Fruit Co. Click the graphic to access the complete letter

According to the field notes taken by the COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team during their May 1 site visit/consultation at Evans Fruit Co. (Tieton facility), “none of the staff wore masks, probably saw less then 10 people total with them.” The notes reported that Brodie Edwards (Food Safety at Evans Fruit Co.) “claims they are available, but I’m not sure where/how. Staff may bring in their own, but are not required or really encourage [sic] to wear them.”

The May 1, field notes also reported that the company was not conducting screenings whatsoever of employees, and that the employees were just self-reporting. Also, the facility was “out of hand sanitizer, but they do provide soap, paper towels, and handwash sinks and have their standard policy of handwashing.”

Screenshot of field notes taken by a Yakima Health District’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team member during the May 1, 2020, site visit/consultation conducted at Evans Fruit Co. (Tieton facility)

According to the May 1, field notes, “The packing lines are 1 to 1 facing line with some having a third person next to a packer a bit less than 6’. No barriers put up, but it would be quite difficult to on these lines and I don’t believe they would be interested in the hassle anyway.” Additionally, “They had a management meeting a few weeks ago about implementing guidelines, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of dialogue between supervisors and workers,” the field notes reported.

But even with the multiple problematic observations noted in YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team field notes, some of which appear to fall below the guideline standards outlined by Washington state, somehow L&I found there to be no violations at Evans Fruit Co.’s Tieton facility during its May 1 inspection.

L&I’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Prevention General Workplace Requirements Summary document lists Mandatory General Requirements for Employers which included: “Cloth face coverings, masks or respirators must be used for work where social distancing is not possible.” The top line of of the 1-page summary document reads: “The Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) requires employers to provide safe and healthy workplaces and to implement the Governor’s order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

In reviewing all of the other site visit follow-up letters YHD sent to growers and fruit packing houses which The Searchlight Review obtained, all of those facilities were determined to be meeting guidelines, and YHD wrote this sentence in all of those other letters:

“Based on what we saw the prevention measures you have in place are meeting guidelines. The above recommendations are more things you can do to help stop the spread further.”

Preserving good working relationships with businesses a priority for health district 

The Searchlight Review sent a June 15 email inquiry to Shawn Magee with several questions, one of which was why the health district did not state in its May 15, follow-up letter, that based on what was observed during YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Team’s visit, the prevention measures Evans Fruit Co. had in place at that time were not meeting guidelines.

Magee’s complete response was:

“As I have stated before, we do not conduct site visits in an enforcement capacity.  They are simply a partnership with a business to help them implement proper infection prevention measures. Our follow up letters simply state a business is meeting guidelines if they are meeting them, plus additional recommendations if there are any. For Evans Fruit we felt it was best not to use language that they were being penalized or looked at as negative. Since these visits are not mandatory and is a working partnership, we want to build the best working relationship possible with these businesses. If a business is not meeting infection prevention guidelines and refuses to implement those measures we can then forward that on to L&I as it becomes a workplace safety issue.”

The Searchlight Review had also asked Magee this question:

“I understand that the Health District is not an enforcement agency, but since that fact did not keep you from making statements in follow-up letters saying that a facility was meeting requirements, why wouldn’t you then also make a statement in a letter to inform a company that it was not meeting guidelines when it was not meeting some of those?”

Magee’s complete response was:

“I believe the answer above also answers this question. I simply chose not to use that language and instead chose to write what our recommendations were to best preserve the working relationship with these businesses to be most effective on them implementing the best prevention measures they could. These are voluntary site visits and maintaining a good working relationship is critical in our fight against COVID-19.”

It’s hard to understand why Magee thinks that by not having stated in YHD’s follow-up letter to Evans Fruit Co. that the company was not meeting guidelines, he was somehow “maintaining a good working relationship” with Evans Fruit Co., because there didn’t seem to be much evidence of a good working relationship. As mentioned earlier, YHD’s chief operating officer, Ryan Ibach told The Searchlight Review that the health district had to involve L&I to help them get into Evans Fruit Co.’s facility because the company had not been cooperative in terms of allowing YHD’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team access to company facilities to see what prevention measures were being taken and to offer recommendations.

Twenty-five days after YHD conducted its site visit/consultation and L&I conducted its inspection at Evans Fruit Co. on May 1, records show a May 26, 2020, email communication was sent from a YHD community health specialist from YHD’s community health specialist, Erika Ochoa to Magee, informing him that YHD had received two voice mails the day before (May 25) from callers who were employees at Evans Fruit Co.’s Tieton facility. Both Evans Fruit Co. employees had reported that employees who had tested positive for COVID-19, “are returning to work and not wearing masks/gloves and that they [Evans Fruit Co.] stopped having the cleaning person sanitize because ‘everyone is already infected so what’s the point.’”

Screenshot of a May 26, 2020, email communication sent from Yakima Health District’s community health specialist, Erika Ochoa, to Yakima Health District’s environmental health director, Shawn Magee