Oregon tree fruit growers spent May drafting plans to house temporary workers without bunk beds after state workplace safety authorities banned their use during the coronavirus pandemic. Washington officials considered a similar move but decided to allow bunk beds under certain restrictions.
While all the major tree fruit producing states issued health guidelines urging social distancing, concrete plans to isolate workers who test positive and extra sanitation measures, Oregon and Washington were the only states, at press time in early May, to have enacted specific regulations requiring such measures, after farmworker advocacy groups filed a legal petition.
Workplace safety agencies in California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania required employers to protect workers from the coronavirus under existing state regulations.
In Oregon, the emergency rules prohibit the use of bunk beds in units housing unrelated workers, mandate the appointment of “social distance officers” on farms and double the required hand-washing stations, among a litany of other measures specifically related to the coronavirus, but the state decided to postpone enforcement until June 1.
“It puts the fruit grower in a real bad position,” said Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers.
In Northern Oregon, near the Columbia River, Hood River and Wasco counties, the two counties that produce the bulk of the state’s cherries and pears, are home to more than 5,800 temporary worker housing beds — about two-thirds of the state’s capacity, according to 2018 statistics, Doke said. Meanwhile, both communities are tourist hot spots where hotels typically fill up. Recreation may open up later this summer, but the farm labor housing needs — and restrictions — will last through the fall.
Doke estimated the bunk-bed ban will leave roughly 400 already-contracted H-2A workers without a place to sleep later this year if growers can’t find alternative housing. “That’s going to mean a lot of fruit left on the tree,” he said.
The growers and other farm groups were considering asking the state to allow the creation of a temporary tent camp, similar to what wildland firefighters used during the 2018 Oregon wildfires, Doke said.
The crunch will be worst during pear harvest, which starts in August, he said. Every farm is different, but cherry growers employ domestic workers who often travel as families and may still use bunk beds that fit four or six to a room.
Orchard View in The Dalles, Oregon, one of the state’s largest cherry producers, planned to reorganize some of its housing units, but the company relies mostly on families for harvest, said Brenda Thomas, company president. However, even some of the other measures, such as increasing the frequency of cleaning portable toilets, will increase the cost of business at a time when margins are already slim, she said.
She and orchard managers are instructing employees to stay positive in the face of the challenge.
“I can’t have the attitude that we can’t do it, and I can’t get all down,” she said.
In Washington, state agencies issued emergency rules after advocates filed a legal petition similar to the one in Oregon. An early draft included measures that would have, in effect, banned bunk beds.
In the end, health authorities chose to allow bunk beds under a “Group Shelter” arrangement in which employers keep groups of up to 15 workers isolated from others while living, working and moving to and from work sites.
Washington relies more heavily on H-2A workers than does Oregon. Of the state’s roughly 164,000 farmworkers, up to 25,000 were expected to come from H-2A contracts, said Sarah Wixson, a Yakima attorney with Stokes Lawrence, the law firm representing grower groups in the legal challenge. By May, some growers had already canceled contracts.
H-2A housing regulations allow little flexibility: neither tents nor simply spreading out beds in common areas, such as dining rooms, even with protective barriers.
Not surprisingly, temporary farmworker housing has been one of the biggest concerns of health experts, who call the facilities an example of “congregate living areas.” Nursing homes and senior assisted-living units fall into the same category.
Inside such places, the coronavirus may spread despite cautionary measures.
Health experts said Stemilt Growers, a Wenatchee company, had taken all the recommended precautions but still had 51 of 71 asymptomatic workers in a housing unit test positive for the coronavirus in mid-April.
“As far as I can tell, they’ve been doing all the right things in all the housing units they own,” said Barry Kling, environmental health director of the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
The week after the Stemilt results, the health district tested 44 farmworker residents and staff of temporary housing centers in Cashmere and Malaga, both operated by the Washington Growers League, a farm employer nonprofit. They all came back negative. In early May, the district teamed up with their neighbor to the south, the Grant County Health District, to test a group of migrant workers as they arrived.
Health district staff ran those extra tests to give them an idea of how the virus has been moving through the agricultural community. In early May, no health district in America had the supplies to keep that up for all workers, but as supplies ramped up, they would be among the high-priority groups, said Theresa Adkinson, administrator of the Grant County Health District. She urged growers expecting arrivals of large groups of seasonal workers to contact their local health authorities in advance.
Meanwhile, Washington growers spent April making contingency plans, shopping around for hotel rooms to reserve if the final regulations curtailed their housing capacity. Some canceled H-2A contracts pre-emptively and evaluated their blocks for varieties they may just not pick this year.
Jordan Matson of Matson Fruit in Selah experimented with rearranging beds and building nonpermeable panels to create the maximum distance and exposure limits inside housing units.
In January, well before the coronavirus pandemic was evident in the United States, Rob Valicoff, a Wapato grower, said other local growers had contracted 700 beds at a hotel his family owns and uses for temporary farmworker housing. The inquiries poured in after the state began considering a bunk-bed ban, which he estimated would cut his capacity to about 60 percent. His managers were considering spreading out workers in the traditional hotel rooms of the facility, while leaving some areas vacant in case they need to quarantine workers who test positive.
In Okanogan, grower Dave Taber had been spacing out workers roughly five per unit, in units designed to hold 30. That was fine for a while but would soon become a problem as his employment picked up for the summer.
“Come cherry time, that’s not going to work for me,” he said.
He typically hires nearly 90 workers at his peak and has a capacity for 60 in his housing units.
Marty Robinson of Brewster began trying to reserve hotel rooms in late April. Early drafts of the state’s housing restrictions would have cost him up to 40 percent of his beds, he estimated. He figured that capacity would be enough to get him through cherry season and his apple thinning, but it won’t work for apple harvest when he needs 100 seasonal workers. Also, as a contingency, he was considering varieties that he simply may not be able to harvest this year. •
by Ross Courtney
—Farming amid the coronavirus