Tree fruit industry associations issued advice late Tuesday to production companies after workers at a few Washington packing houses walked off the job in protest for hazard pay, safer work conditions and better communication.
The walkouts in Yakima County occurred as positive cases of the new coronavirus continue to climb in the community and some employers continued to struggle to source masks and other protective and sanitation equipment.
The top advice: Communicate proactively with the workforce about the steps companies are taking to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, what supervisors are and are not allowed to share with workers in the event of exposure and the difficulties of finding enough extra masks and other protective equipment to purchase.
Sometimes, workers are demanding to know who at their company has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. That’s not always shareable information by law, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, which represents production companies.
“You have a right to know if you were exposed, but you do not have a right to know somebody else’s health status,” he said.
Also, explain in advance how different health districts have different notification procedures for positive tests. That means employers don’t always know about positive tests right away, which can lead to accusations of a lack of transparency, DeVaney said. Some health districts tell the employee who tested positive and then inform the employer. Others leave it up to the employee to pass along the message.
Many protesters are asking for $2 raises as hazard pay. DeVaney advised negotiating pay increases in good faith, but trying to keep them separate from workplace safety concerns.
Under the supervision of a Skagit County Superior Court judge, health and safety agencies are drafting new emergency rules to govern agricultural production during the pandemic.
The Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the tree fruit industry of Oregon and Washington in federal matters, shared guidance for navigating the pandemic situation, including threats of protests and heightened media scrutiny. Recommendations include inviting health officials to packing houses to evaluate safety protocols and communicating proactively with workers about the precautions that have been put in place, such as social distancing and increased facility sanitation.NHC-COVID-19-employment-memo-05.12.2020
On Tuesday, some workers at Matson Fruit Co. in Selah informed their supervisors they were walking out, said Jordan Matson, a partner in the family company, in a statement to the Good Fruit Grower. The company has had three employees test positive for the virus and three others “presumed positive” but who are awaiting confirmation, he said.
“Nothing is more important than the health of our team here at Matson Fruit Co.,” Matson said. The company has implemented several risk-mitigation procedures and contacted the Yakima Health District for advice on more.
The Yakima Herald-Republic has reported walkouts at Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima and Allan Bros. of Naches.
—by Ross Courtney