Working with masks

Alberto Guitierez, front, and other workers wear masks in Mt. View Orchard, East Wenatchee, Wash., on May 19. Some orchard workers typically wear masks but more are now because of COVID-19.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — New COVID-19 state farmworker housing rules aren’t workable for all tree fruit growers and could reduce labor availability and cause crop losses.

“It’s workable for some, not others, and is not justifiable on a policy basis,” said Dan Fazio, director of Wafla, an Olympia farm labor organization that assists growers in hiring thousands of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers.

“It puts farmers in the untenable position of either violating the rule or leaving crops to rot due to lack of workforce and the farmer goes bankrupt,” Fazio said.

Already uncertainty has slowed the hiring of H-2A workers, he said.

The rules are difficult to comply with because “they assume everyone has the same neat little 16-person homes and that’s not the case. Facilities are different,” he said.

“We understand the agencies were under intense political pressure from the left to make it harder for farmers to stay in business. Farmers are tired of hearing their best isn’t good enough. Do we want food on the table or not? If we do, we have to trust farmers,” Fazio said.

The 120-day emergency rule, which took effect May 18, allows bunk beds if they are 6 feet apart or separated by floor to near-ceiling barriers and occupants in lower and upper berths sleep head-to-toe. Bunk houses may have up to 15 occupants and beside the sleeping restrictions they have to wear cloth face masks and distance from each other while cooking, eating, bathing and recreating. Space must be made available to isolate any workers who become sick.

Growers have until May 28 to submit housing plans to the state departments of Health or Labor & Industries. Wafla is helping growers draft plans.

Most tree fruit farmworker housing is for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers. Those numbers are increasing for the June and July cherry harvest and apple and pear thinning and harvest.

“I hope growers have a good cherry crop to make up for inevitable losses in apples,” Fazio said.

Wafla owns 256 beds of farmworker housing near Pasco and Okanogan.

The Washington Growers League in Yakima owns and operates more than 800 beds in Wenatchee, Cashmere and Mattawa. The league could not be reached for comment.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said some growers will find the new housing rules “relatively easy to implement” while others are looking for clarifications and possibly variances. He had estimated an earlier draft rule, basically banning bunk beds, would have reduced the workforce by 50%. That reduction will be less with this rule but costs will increase, he said.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers, said he was “profoundly disappointed” in the bunk bed rule.

Segregated group shelters will further isolate workers living in remote areas, he said.

“It’s starting to look like incarceration rather than essential workers,” Nicholson said.

Mike Robinson, president of Double Diamond Fruit Co. in Quincy, said the industry won’t have a full workforce because rooms will have to be held for any workers who get sick.

“I have 53 beds at my own orchard but I’m running at 42 occupied because I have to save room for anyone who becomes ill,” Robinson said. “I’m trying to develop more housing because I don’t think this is going away.”

Double Diamond has no orchards but packs fruit for small-scale growers.

Allowing bunk beds makes it possible for small growers to operate, he said.

“There is a range of unhappiness, but who is happy about any of it? None of this is any fun. It’s bad news from the beginning. The only question is how we deal with it. If we can keep operating and supply food and keep our people safe, we’re doing the right thing,” Robinson said.

Jon Alegria, president of CPC International Apple Co. in Tieton west of Yakima, said his company has about 200 beds and is trying to work with the new rule but is concerned about rising costs in a tough market where sales to foodservice are diminished.

“We just want to keep everybody safe and find an economical way to pick fruit,” Alegria said.

Dave Taber, a grower in Oroville at the U.S.-Canada border, said growers are doing their best to educate workers about masks and distancing to keep each other and the community safe. He said growers will follow through on the housing rules and hope it doesn’t have too big an impact.

Capital Press reporter Don Jenkins contributed to this report.

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