May 14, 2020Yakima Valley fruit company workers walk off the job, citing safety concerns
Protests by Yakima County, Washington, agricultural workers over what they consider unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 outbreak continued Wednesday, May 13, with employees walking out of the Monson Fruit Co. in Selah.
According to a story the Yakima Herald, more than 100 workers gathered in the company’s parking lot and outside the plant Wednesday morning, some holding cardboard signs demanding justice – “¡Demandos Justicia!” – or “Workers over Profit.”
Kathy Mendoza, who has worked for the company on and off for seven years, said workers were protesting an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment, sanitizing, and social distancing inside the plant. Workers also are afraid to call in sick, fearing their jobs won’t be there for them when they come back, she said.
According to the story:
Adrian Mendoza said workers also weren’t being informed when their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.
“They didn’t tell us that people were sick until three weeks later,” said Mendoza, a Monson employee for two years. “A lot of people are scared and stressed in the workplace. Some of us have kids, and we don’t want to go home and infect people.”
Workers at other companies have voiced similar concerns. This week workers also walked out of Frosty Packing in Yakima, Allan Bros. in Naches and Matson Fruit Co. in Selah.
Jason Bakker, the general manager at Monson, said staff has met with every employee and department over the last few weeks to try to keep workers updated – a daunting task, given constantly changing COVID-19 safety protocols.
“The protocols are changing so aggressively and so quickly, and we’re trying to stay on top of it,” he said. “I’ve told workers I have an open door policy, so the strike was a surprise. But I think it happened because of fear.”
Bakker said staff have communicated with workers about the company’s efforts to ensure a safe work environment. It purchased 500 gallons of sanitizer from Swede Hill Distillery, hired six sanitation workers per shift to clean work surfaces daily while workers are on break, and joined other growers calling on the state for help securing masks.
“We have tried to follow every recommendation,” Bakker said. “We’ve taken significant steps.”
Jon Devaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said Monson scheduled a Thursday review with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
Regarding the lack of masks, Devaney said growers asked for the state’s help with personal protective equipment weeks ago but supplies have been backlogged. The state Department of Agriculture recently acquired 50,000 cloth masks for statewide distribution, and Monson received 500 Wednesday afternoon.
Devaney said growers have been informing employees who may have been exposed to confirmed cases but can only share certain details. Employers can’t get into the sick person’s symptoms or medical history, which he said is what employees have wanted.