Hansen Fruit

A worker sorts Golden Delicious apples on the packing line at Hansen Fruit & Cold Storage Co., Yakima, Wash. Some workers claim that packers' efforts to protect them against COVID-19 are inadequate.

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Workers at seven produce warehouses in central Washington state have walked off the job this week to protest what they call a lack of protections against the coronavirus pandemic.

The workers in Yakima County held signs Thursday asking employers for better COVID-19 safety measures, 6 feet of social distancing in the workplace, and protection from retaliation for protesting. They also want some warehouses to provide a hazard pay increase of $2 an hour.

The Yakima Herald-Republic reported that the strikes began on Monday among workers, who are mostly Hispanic, at the warehouses.

Organizers said at least six more strikes are expected this weekend.

Yakima County has been hard-hit by coronavirus, with more than 2,100 cases and 73 deaths. The county of 250,000 people has had the highest rate of cases per 100,000 residents on the West Coast.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death, and nursing homes have been hit hard.

The county is a huge producer of fruits and vegetables, including many of the nation's apples, cherries, hops and other produce.

Farmers contend they are implementing social distancing and sanitizing surfaces more often.

Those efforts have been enough for the Yakima Health District, which inspected numerous warehouses this week and decided the measures in place have met recommended guidelines.

Rosalina Gonzales was one of the strikers on Thursday. She’s worked at the Columbia Reach Pack warehouse for 19 years.

Gonzales said workers decided to strike because it’s the only way they feel the company’s management will listen to their concerns.

“There are a lot of people who have tested positive here,” she said. “I feel like I’m in danger, but I have to work. I have no choice.”

Maria Valdovinos said workers have tried to report their concerns to management but felt ignored.

“We feel we don’t have support from nobody,'' she said.

Jackie Garcia, 23, was among more than 20 workers protesting outside Hansen Fruit.

Garcia said supervisors have been inconsistent in following guidelines. With upper management or regulators around, supervisors would ask workers to stand farther apart.

“Once they left, it was back to normal,” she said.

In an emailed statement to the Yakima newspaper, Hansen Fruit president and owner Eric Hansen said the strike came as a shock as the facility has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Hansen said the company has provided personal protective equipment to employees free of charge as it became available, restricted hiring to prevent exposure from workers at facilities with COVID-19 cases, and intensified cleaning efforts.

“If this strike is truly about worker safety, we are all in on that effort and 100% committed to the cause," Hansen wrote. “If this is about money, then I am greatly disappointed the strike is misleading the public.''

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