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Nervous but determined: H-2A workers get vaccinated at Central Washington Hospital

WENATCHEE — The line of agricultural workers waiting for their turn under the needle of a COVID-19 vaccine wrapped around one of the hospital’s parking lots, and those under observation for any side effects sat outside in the courtyard in the shade.

More than 100 agricultural workers from Kyle Mathison Orchards were transported to Central Washington Hospital to be vaccinated with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on April 2.

Most of these workers are part of the H-2A guestworker program which gives people from other countries temporary work during the harvest season.

Juan Manuel Mesa Lopez, a five-time H-2A worker from Mexico, was not concerned about working the harvest season again during the pandemic, but he did take some convincing to get in line for a new vaccine, he said.

“Well, with everything that happened early on, it scares people,” Lopez said in Spanish. “But once you know what does and doesn’t happen, you learn that [the vaccine] is there to help.”

Eneida Gonzalez, program coordinator for Confluence Health who organized the vaccination sign-ups at several companies, said that many workers were scared at first but the majority eventually sign up to get vaccinated.

“They see a lot of things on TV,” Gonzalez said. “Long needles. Fake vaccinations. ‘I might get another eye.’ A few different things. They’re all very, very scared. We listen to them, answer whatever questions they have to make them feel at ease.”

Modesto Gonzalez, a pharmacist for Confluence Health, said that as he went around helping workers with any questions, he did receive a few questions about whether the shot hurt.

He did not get any unusual questions about the vaccine, and it is not uncommon for people to be nervous or have a phobia about needles, Gonzalez said.

“There is so much data already that [COVID-19 vaccines] are safe and that they work,” Gonzalez said. “I’m actually surprised that some people are still hesitant to get the vaccine.”

Close to 100% of workers at Kyle Mathison Orchards eventually signed up to get vaccinated, according to Gonzalez.

Jonathan Alberto, another H-2A worker from Mexico, said he was a bit nervous about the whole situation. He had not returned to the United States with the H-2A program since 2017, Alberto said. But he had heard about the United States’ struggle with the pandemic from the state of Michoacán where the situation was also pretty bad, he said.

Although nervous about COVID-19 vaccines, Alberto said he was convinced he needed to get vaccinated amidst all the misinformation around it.

“Sometimes we’re doubtful, but if it’s for the good, well, we have to get it,” Alberto said in Spanish.

Confluence Health vaccinated another 52 H-2A workers on March 20, according to JoEllen Colson, Confluence senior vice president. It has been a pleasant surprise for Confluence to see that the Latino and agricultural communities eager to get vaccinated, she said.

Teresa Zepeda, mother, and Teresa Bendito-Zepeda, daughter, were both assisting efforts by translating questions and answers and helping with vaccinations.

Confluence Health Foundation awarded Teresita’s Consulting, Bendito-Zepeda’s business, $200,000 to improve vaccination access to Latinos in the area. Teresita’s Consulting has worked with agricultural companies such as Blue Bird, Stemilt Growers, McDougall and Sons, among others, according to Colson.

Zepeda encouraged workers in line to take a photo alongside a photo Confluence Health set up that read in Spanish: “Welcome agricultural workers! To you who works in the orchard, to you who works in the packing shed, thank you for feeding the world!”

Zepeda felt it was great to see Confluence Health recognize agricultural workers for their efforts, working long hours, especially during the pandemic.

“[H-2A] workers take some money home, but they’re also recognized for the hard work they do,” Zepeda said in Spanish. “That is great. That’s on another level.”

Cashmere students collect books in honor of former librarian, Barbara deRubertis

CASHMERE — What started as an effort to thin out a home library has turned into a book drive and pen pal project honoring the memory of a beloved former educator involving dozens of students and teachers, from Cashmere to Africa.

Vale Elementary School teacher Kristin Umbarger-Keene decided last December to donate books from her home library to the nonprofit African Library Project, which establishes small libraries in rural African communities.

Submitted photo 

Barbara deRubertis

Former Cashmere educator and author

She was excited to share the details of the project with her friend, retired Cashmere teacher and school librarian Barbara deRubertis, who had also authored 64 children’s books.

Umbarger-Keene didn’t get the chance. DeRubertis, a resident at Mountain Meadows in Leavenworth, died on New Year’s Day. Upon news of her death, the staff at Vale decided to build on Umbarger-Keene’s home library donation plan and start a book drive for African Library Project as a way to honor deRubertis.

Submitted photo 

Cashmere High School Key Club member Eva Gemeinhart stamps books for the project. More than 2,000 books were collected for the project. 

“It kind of went from a family idea to a much bigger project” with help from the Key Club and Parent Teacher Organization, she said. “A lot of people have donated books and boxes and packing materials.”

Umbarger-Keene emailed Barbara deRubertis’s publisher, Kane Press, to see if they would donate books. Barbara deRubertis’s editor, Juliana Lauletta, donated 350 new books to include with the shipments.

“The YWCA in Wenatchee gave us a whole bunch of nonfiction books,” she said. “It makes me cry. Barb would be so happy. She was all about broadening minds and making connections. She would love it.”

In all, more than 2,000 books have been collected and are being sent to two African Library Project libraries in communities in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. The books are being sent to the Maphanda Community Library in Maphanda Village, Jali, Zomba, Malawi and the Mvera Youth and Development Solutions Community Library in Mvera, Dowa, Malawi.

Umbarger-Keene said the recipients have been approved and selected by the African Library Project, and the organization will train the librarians and ensure the library is cared for and open regularly to the communities they serve.

The African Library Project has already created more than 3,000 such libraries in 12 countries in Africa. “We are happy to be part of opening two more,” she said.

Submitted photo 

This is the stamp each books receives denoting it is being donated to honor the late Barbara deRubertis. 

The effort didn’t stop there.

“The person in charge of one of the libraries, named Cannon, said he had 20 students who wanted pen-pals,” she said. “Those students have already written to our students. They have already received the letters from the kids in Malawi. They are writing back to them.”

The students who wrote from Africa were mostly high school-aged kids, Umbarger-Keene said.

Umbarger-Keene, a music teacher at Vale, said the letter her high school-aged daughter received was from a 14-year old boy named Davie. He told her about shopping at the market every weekend because it was cheaper than going to the store. He talked about playing soccer and about his civic group that planted trees to teach others about conservation.

Davie wanted to know about amusement parks and other things in America.

“He had a list of things he wanted to know about. It was beautiful writing. They are one of the poorest countries in Africa. I love connections, so that was a cool part,” she said.

Cashmere High School senior Willow Tonseth has been helping to pack the boxes with books. All the books receive a special stamp noting the books have been donated in honor of Barbara deRubertis. Tonseth has been helping to stamp the books too.

“I think it is amazing that everyone gets this opportunity. It’s awesome and really fun,” Tonseth said. “It’s an amazing thing, people working together to do something like this. It reflects very kindly on humanity.”

DeRubertis had retired by the time Tonseth was in kindergarten in the Cashmere School District, but she remembers her coming to the library to read stories. She feels deRubertis would have been proud of this effort.

Submitted photo 

Some of the books will be sent to the the Mvera Youth and Development Solutions Community Library in Mvera, Dowa, Malawi.

“From the little I know of her, I think she would have been amazed at the sheer amount of people who came together to make this work,” Tonseth said. “It is an insane amount of books. It’s more than I can count.”

The books are packed in boxes that will be sent to the African Library Project site in Louisiana, where the boxes will be put into a container, shipped to Africa, loaded onto a truck and delivered to their destinations.

Washington tree fruit exports challenged with shipping, trade issues

YAKIMA — Nearly 28% of Washington state apples were shipped to 60 different countries during the 2018-19 season.

Industry officials expect exports for the 2020-21 crop to not only be below that figure, but to drop to levels not seen in nearly two decades.

As of last week, the state had exported 18.8 million 40-pound boxes of apples, down 20.5% from this time last year and down 16.4% compared to the 2018-19 shipping season, according to figures from the Washington Apple Commission, which oversees international promotions. The percentage of the 2020 crop to be exported is expected to drop to below 25%. That would be the lowest since the 2003-04 crop season when it was at 21.7%

Exporting apples and other agriculture commodities remains a challenge due to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, longstanding trade disputes with several countries and a lack of available shipping containers from ocean carriers.

It remains to be seen how soon the federal government can work on any relief with trade and transportation issues that have hampered exports of U.S. products, including tree fruit from the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys. President Joe Biden’s administration has tackled several high-priority policy issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic response and immigration.

“There’s hope, and there’s reality,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

Shipping containers

U.S. demand for products made in China, such as personal protective equipment for COVID-19, furniture and toys, increased considerably at the end of last year.

The demand has driven ocean carriers to prioritize getting shipping containers back to China as quickly as possible to get imports to the U.S. and other countries.

That has resulted in ocean carriers opting to leave the U.S. with empty shipping containers rather than filling them up with U.S.-made products, including apples grown in this state.

“Containers are tight, and once we receive a container, it’s difficult to predict what vessel the cargo will load upon,” said Fryhover of the Washington Apple Commission. “This is delaying our exports. (I hope) soon things will return to normal, but it appears there isn’t a quick return to normal.”

Sue Coffey, director of business development for the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which runs the marine cargo operation for the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, said she has been urging ocean carriers to make more containers available. She said there are groups in Washington, D.C., also advocating for this.

“We’ve got ag products that are important to the Washington state economy,” she said. “We’re reinforcing how important it is for Washington state to have (containers) allocated.”

Coffey said as ocean carriers expand their services from the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, available cargo containers for Washington products will increase as well.

Trade disputes

Agricultural products, including apples and cherries, continue to deal with longstanding trade issues with China and India.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum from several countries, including Canada, Mexico and China. As a result, several countries imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products, including apples and cherries grown in Washington. The U.S. has resolved the matter with some countries, including Canada and Mexico, but not with others.

In 2019, India imposed an additional 20% tariff on apples, bringing the total duty to 70%. Meanwhile, apples from other countries remain at 50%. That has created issues for the Washington apple industry, which has relied on India as a destination for Red Delicious apples.

“The discrepancy is concerning since March through July (are) the major shipment months for Washington Red Delicious into India,” Fryhover said.

Apples and cherries to China are now hit with a 50% tariff, including two retaliatory tariffs totaling 40%. Not surprisingly, exports of both to China have declined.

An initial trade deal with China in early 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, provided a little relief: Importers could apply for an “exclusion,” which would drop the tariff to 25%.

Still, the damage has already been done.

Just four years ago, China was an explosive market for Northwest cherries. In 2017, 3.3 million 20-pound boxes of cherries were shipped to China. Since the tariffs went into effect in 2018, shipments have declined — to 2.2 million in 2018, 1.9 million in 2019, and to just over 1 million last year, when the region had a small crop.

Keith Hu, who oversees promotions for Northwest Cherry Growers, said he’s hoping for a slight increase in exports to China with a larger crop but doesn’t expect a return to 2017 figures anytime soon.

As a result, Hu said his organization is looking to other markets, such as Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia.

“I don’t see the relationship with U.S. and China improving anytime soon,” he said.

In late January, Chinese social media blew up with news of traces of coronavirus on a package of Chilean cherries. Despite an effort by Chinese and Chilean officials to declare the cherries safe, it still hampered exports, Hu said. There wasn’t any indication that anyone was sickened, and Chinese epidemiologists said the risk of being infected by imported fruit was very low.

Hu isn’t sure whether China would be willing to work with the U.S. if there was a similar situation.

Mark Powers of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the tree fruit industry on public policy matters, said he’s started conversations with Biden administration officials about finding solutions that would lead to countries lifting tariffs. Still, there isn’t any indication of when things could change.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who was confirmed last month for the position, recently indicated that the U.S. is not yet ready to lift tariffs on Chinese products.

“I think they continue to study the situation and evaluate how to best proceed,” Powers said.

Job losses in Chelan and Douglas counties slow as reopening takes hold

WENATCHEE — Losing 2,400 jobs between last February and this February doesn’t sound like good news.

It’s all about perspective, says Don Meseck, a state economist. The 2,400 fewer jobs noted in the February numbers released last week mean Chelan and Douglas counties are up 600 jobs from the 3,000 average annual job loss for all of 2020. In January’s month-over-month comparison of numbers from the state Employment Security Department, the region was down 3,200 jobs.

“Relatively speaking, if the estimates are true, it means we’re starting to improve. It’s unlikely we’ll have a dramatic turnaround in March or April, but it’s heading in the right direction,” Meseck said.

Overall, the February numbers for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Chelan and Douglas counties, shows the pandemic continues to hit industries hard across the board.

“The local nonfarm market has contracted in each of the past 11 months, from April 2020 through February 2021,” Meseck said. “However, this February’s minus-5.4% loss-rate was the lowest since the start of COVID-19-related layoffs last April.”

Some industry sectors are seeing not only a slowdown in job losses, but some job gains.

Retail trade added 100 jobs in February 2021 compared to February 2020, as did the “education and health services” category, which includes businesses like dentists, chiropractors and doctor’s offices, vocational rehabilitation, emergency relief services and child daycare services.

Wenatchee’s leisure and hospitality industry — primarily hotels, eating and drinking places and amusement and recreation businesses — was down 1,400 jobs this February compared to last February, a 21.9% drop. It remains the region’s hardest-hit industry, job-wise, but the relatively high number is a big improvement over the 44.8% loss in jobs that hit in April 2020.

The industry numbers statewide follow the same trend.

Local government, which includes public schools, dropped about 700 jobs in the Wenatchee region this February compared to last February.

That sector had been growing by 100-plus jobs a year from 2017 through 2019. As students are cleared to return to classrooms full-time, those jobs are likely to bump back up.

Other sectors are anticipating a similar trend. As vaccines take effect and COVID-19 restrictions are eased, jobs are likely to return. They might not all be the same jobs, though.

The long-term effects of internet shopping, for instance, might change how brick and mortar retailers operate, Meseck said.

Other industries might change how business is conducted — with more employees in some professions working from home, which could have an impact on some job numbers. That’s not an option for all sectors.

The other big statistic of note is the unemployment rate — sitting at 7.2% for February, up from 6.6% in February 2020 and a bump from January’s revised rate of 7%.

“It’s a mix of good and bad news,” Meseck said. “Monthly rates have been higher since COVID-19, from April through February, but the difference isn’t as great as it has been. To sum up the two points, if you look at nonfarm loss rates, they are less now than they were at the start of COVID. We are still losing jobs, but at a declining rate. And unemployment rates are higher, but the gap is closing. We’ll see what happens next month.”