COVID stresses food production in Washington fruit harvests

Mitchell Hartman Oct 27, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

COVID stresses food production in Washington fruit harvests

Mitchell Hartman Oct 27, 2020
Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on agriculture and food production. Through the spring and summer, plants that process fruits and vegetables and meats suffered large coronavirus outbreaks, and in many cases had to temporarily shut down. 

This pattern has played out in central Washington’s Yakima Valley, where fruit-packing plants were hit with a wave of COVID infection in the summer. Cases spread from the crowded, busy processing plants to family and community members, in an area where many workers earn their livelihood either in the fields and orchards, or in food manufacturing.

In early summer, as COVID spread and Yakima County racked up some of the highest case-counts in Washington State, workers at multiple packing plants went on strike. They demanded PPE (personal protective equipment) for their workplaces, as well as more safety measures in the plants to prevent COVID transmission, along with hazard pay as essential workers.

In late October, the fall harvest was in full swing in the irrigated orchards of this prime apple-growing region, which also produces bumper crops of cherries and pears.

“Cosmic Crisp and a lot of really great varieties are still on until mid-November,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which supports fruit producers with regulatory compliance and provides housing for farm workers across the region.

Gempler said the summer of 2020 was one of the most difficult the industry has experienced in decades. There were strikes — which lasted for several weeks in some cases — and prolonged shortages of PPE. “Everything having to do with COVID protection was back-ordered,” Gempler said, “the masks you needed, the face shields you needed, the hand-washing stations—you couldn’t get it. So people were fabricating things in their shops.”

Producers also had to re-engineer their packing plants to space workers out more, which often required slowing down the packing lines or investing in new equipment.

Gempler said the plants are running full-tilt now. He estimated that producers’ costs are up 10% to 15% compared to last year. “People just spent the money, if they had it, to stay in business,” he said. “Because if they had an outbreak or if the state came in and inspected and they were full of violations, they’d shut them down.”

The Washington Growers League had to modify the housing it runs for hundreds of mostly Latinx migrant farm workers and foreign guest-workers on H2A visas. 

At the League’s housing complex in the small farm-town of Mattawa in apple-orchard country along the Columbia River, each floor typically houses 24 workers. They share bathrooms, showers, laundry and a kitchen — which now has plastic partitions installed between the stoves. Their temperatures are taken and they’re screened for symptoms of illness daily.

“Using bunk beds really didn’t provide adequate separation, so bunk beds were disallowed — which cut our housing capacity in half,” Gempler said. One guest-worker from Mexico was cleaning his assigned kitchen area and not wearing a mask when this reporter visited. The worker said he was concerned about coronavirus and usually wore a mask, but had left his in his bedroom that morning.

Wendy Lopez runs the site, and is also an elected city councilor in Mattawa. She said most residents of the town and the housing complex are wearing masks consistently and keeping socially distant now. But earlier in the pandemic, she said that often wasn’t the case.

“In the beginning it was a little bit hard,” Lopez said. “People didn’t really believe that it was true. But once you see a family member get sick, one of the local priests got sick, that hit pretty hard and that’s when people started getting serious.”

In the wake of the summer strikes and the wave of COVID illness that swept through Yakima’s immigrant community, labor activists are now trying to organize a union in the area’s packing plants.

“Employers are now giving masks,” said immigration attorney Eilish Villa Malone with Yakima-based Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia/Workers United for Justice. “But they [the workers] are also working shoulder-to-shoulder, the lines are super-tough — meaning that they’re throwing a lot a lot of fruit down the line and it’s constant physical strain.”

And COVID-19 is still a danger to workers and the community. “It’s not really going away,” Villa Malone said. “Maybe it’s gone down percentage-wise, but I’m still seeing people get sick. And a lot of the workers are afraid or unable to take time off when they get sick. Because when you’re a minimum-wage worker, you can’t afford to take time off, maybe you don’t have sick leave, and maybe you can’t get unemployment.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

Read More


As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.