YAKIMA, Wash. — Workers are being spaced farther apart on packing lines and in lunchrooms of the tree fruit industry because of COVID-19, but distancing might be harder to maintain in farmworker housing.
It’s not a critical issue yet because the big influx of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers from Mexico won’t happen for another month. But “many growers are rightly worried how to prepare for the peak harvest period,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima.
The state Department of Health recognizes that it may not be possible to keep workers 6 feet apart in housing, but various labor advocacy groups such as Columbia Legal Services, Familias Unidas the United Farm Workers have pushed the state and the governor to do more about social distancing in the workplace and in housing, DeVaney said.
“Trying to achieve additional distancing will reduce the amount of space available and there is already an inadequate supply of seasonal farm labor housing in many areas,” DeVaney said.
State orders include options like physical barriers and protective equipment, said Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League in Yakima.
The League operates facilities with more than 800 farmworker beds in Wenatchee and Mattawa.
“We’re putting disinfectant wipes at entrances and hand sanitizers in every room and are educating people on social distancing and sanitation,” Gempler said.
Housekeeping is being stepped up in common areas, showering and eating is being done in shifts and rooms will be set aside for quarantine, he said.
“We’re trying to spread people out in sleeping rooms by moving beds. We’re trying to get approval from Labor & Industries and Department of Health to close off three sides of bottom bunks with solid material and with a curtain on one side,” Gempler said. “When the season comes on we will be in a lot of trouble if we can’t do something like that.”
Tiers of bunks are more than 6 feet apart and spacing individual bunks in a tier is 3.5 feet in League housing, he said.
But many growers built housing to state standards with bunk tiers just 4 feet apart, said Dan Fazio, director of the farm labor association Wafla in Olympia.
“Gov. Inslee has been good and sensible so far. It would be a big mistake (to insist on 6 feet apart),” Fazio said.
Wafla provided 12,000 H-2A workers for 16,000 jobs last year out of the 26,226 H-2A jobs certified in the state. Wafla housing has 256 beds.
County health agencies and Wafla are locating isolation quarters for workers, if needed, Fazio said.
“We need the Department of Health and L&I to get farmers cleaning supplies and masks and fight this thing together. We have a lot of moving parts right now,” Fazio said. “We need all workers to stay strong and come to work and not go out (socializing) at night.”
Rob Valicoff, president of Valicoff Fruit Co., in Wapato, said his bunk tiers are more than 6 feet apart, that orchard workers most always work more than 6 feet apart and that he’s more than doubled his lunchroom space and staggered lunch breaks so workers can sit three instead of eight to a table in his packing shed.
He shut down the FairBridge Inn in Yakima three weeks ago because of big group cancelations but will reopen it at the end of April for contracts to house 700 H-2A workers.
While COVID-19 resulted in increased industry apple sales, that only lasted two weeks and resulted in only slightly higher prices, he said. Companies that end up with too much 2019 crop carryover in August will be dumping apples, he said.