NCW — In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis some of the most essential workers are those in the orchards, fields and packing houses providing the public with food.

Legal and Hispanic advocacy organizations are arguing that these workers are at a higher risk of infection from COVID-19 and need better protections. Columbia Legal Services sued earlier this month asking the state to take emergency action to protect agriculture workers.

A recent report of 36 out of 71 migrant workers testing positive for COVID-19 at a Stemilt labor camp near East Wenatchee proves the potential danger, said Joe Morrison, Columbia Legal Services attorney. Columbia Legal services provides free legal representation to prisoners and agriculture workers.

The big problem is that thousands of migrant workers come to the state each year and live in confined housing, usually three to four people per room, Morrison said.

“None of this was thought of with, ‘What will you do with social distancing?’ ” Morrison said. “A lot of these labor camps use bunk beds. People are on top of each other, literally.”

There are now about 9,000 migrant workers in the state and most of them work the tree fruit industry in Central Washington, he said. Another 20,000 will arrive closer to harvest.

These people shop at local stores and are in the community, possibly spreading COVID-19, Morrison said.

“So, it is a disaster in the making and it has been proven out today. Because look at this, this is a place in our backyard,” he said of the testing at the Stemilt facility.

He knows growers will be concerned about where they will house people in preparation for harvest, but they need to consider public safety first, Morrison said. Workers need to be placed in less dense housing and workers who test positive for COVID-19 need to be adequately quarantined, Morrison said.

Stemilt Growers and two other large agricultural companies were contacted for this report but did not respond.

Keeping informed

The biggest hurdle for the Hispanic community, many of whom work in packing houses and on farms, is access to information, said Karina Vega-Villa, a Wenatchee Valley College professor and community advocate. A lot of people don’t understand why they need to practice social distancing or why they should continue these practices when they go home from work, because they are not being adequately informed about the potential dangers, she said.

Vega-Villa emphasized that her information is based on second-hand accounts.

“It is very difficult for our culture that is very community based to say you can’t do that anymore,” Vega-Villa said. “It is more a matter of values and community centeredness rather than unwillingness to cooperate.”

People working in the packing houses and fields have expressed some concern that they are not physically distancing, she said. They are also afraid to express their concerns to their employer, fearing retaliation.

They are being provided with cleaning supplies, masks and gloves, Vega-Villa said. But they don’t understand that they need to continue to use that type of equipment when they go home.

She was talking to one of her neighbors who wears a mask while working in a warehouse and Vega-Villa explained to her why it was important.

“So it took me five minutes to explain why we needed to do that,” she said. “(But) it is hard to work with a mask for eight hours on your face. So I understand her frustration.”

In addition, her neighbor said the warehouse where she works moved employees from being contracted piece-rate to hourly, Vega-Villa said. It is a challenging change for her neighbor, because now she feels like she can’t take breaks.

“So there is that psychological impact as well, where as before she could take a little 10 minute break to go stretch her legs,” she said.

As for sick leave, a lot of Hispanic workers don’t understand they have access to it, Vega-Villa said. They also have bills to pay and are concerned about losing income.

“They would choose to go sick to work rather than go through the process, because they don’t understand that there is that option,” she said.

What needs to happen is better access to information, Vega-Villa said. A lot of organizations are stepping up to assist by providing basic COVID-19 health info in Spanish, such as Our Valley Our Future, but there are still challenges.

“I’m wondering also if those resources are being made on flyers because a lot of members of our community don’t have access to the internet,” she said. “A lot of communication has been done on social media.”

An orchardist’s concerns

Gilberto Covarrubias and his two brothers have owned orchards in the Wenatchee Valley and Quincy area for 22 years.

Covarrubias grew up in Mexico, but came to the United States with his parents as a migrant worker, he said through an interpreter, Gustavo Montoya, the former editor of El Mundo newspaper and a community advocate.

Covarrubias has been in the United States since 1982 and is now an American citizen.

The brothers own about 60 acres of apples in Quincy and about 10 acres of cherries in East Wenatchee, he said. They employ between 10 to 40 people, depending on the time of year.

He is currently trying to have his employees practice social distancing, but it is challenging, Covarrubias said. Farm work does not provide people with a lot of flexibility. They can’t stop or slow down as things need to get done.

“I mean you have to go on,” Covarrubias said. “You have to do the thinning. You have to do the pruning that’s needed. If it is getting too cold you’ve got to deal with it.”

When it comes time to harvest he’s concerned they will not have enough hands, he said. His orchards are so small he doesn’t use migrant workers. He instead hires local families. But the larger orchards run by the bigger companies may be short handed this year and hire everyone they can.

His workers have concerns about their safety and ask if they should stay home, but they also need to make an income, Covarrubias said. He tells them he would understand if they decided to stay home, but they have to make that decision for themselves.

“It is very stressful because you don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said.

He hasn’t heard any recommendations or guidelines from state agencies for keeping workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, Covarrubias. So far, they are still following their regular safety practices, but he does have a lot of questions.

For example, they normally wear gloves when picking fruit, but, he asked, should they increase how often they change those gloves?

Covarrubias said he’s feeling a lot of frustration and is worried about his own safety. When he goes to the store he wonders about the number of hands touching and picking up each of the apples on display.

“It doesn’t feel safe and you still have to go to the store, but I don’t feel safe,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it up to God.”

Tony Buhr: 664-7123

buhr@wenatcheeworld.com or

on Twitter @TonyBuhr