Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order Monday. But even so, thousands of people still report to work every day in the Yakima Valley.
Agriculture is among the industries considered essential amid the coronavirus outbreak. Without the agriculture industry up and running, people’s food supply would be put at risk.
And without farmworkers, many of the area’s top producers would be, too. More than 100,000 Washingtonians are employed in agriculture, and more than 70% of the nation’s apples come from Washington, according to the United Farm Workers, a labor union.
Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers who lives in Richland, said the workers who keep the rest of the world fed are among the most vulnerable to the pandemic. On March 24, the union asked agricultural employers to provide sick leave, hazard pay, access to sanitizing materials and social distancing standards at work, and emergency, no-cost child care.
“The same issues faced by farmworkers across the country are of heightened urgency in the state of Washington,” Nicholson said. “Protecting the well-being of farmworkers is protecting the domestic food supply of this country.”
In Yakima County, workers and family members have raised questions about whether employers are following recommended guidelines to minimize the spread of the virus, and what support is available if people get sick. Advocates want to make sure accurate information, resources and benefits are available for workers and Spanish-speaking residents.
Farmworkers and agricultural warehouse employees are considered essential under Inslee’s stay-home order. All businesses still operating must implement social distancing measures to keep people 6 feet apart.
The March 19 letter from United Farm Workers asked growers and agricultural groups to take steps to protect farmworkers, buyers, and consumers from the growing spread of the coronavirus, including extending state-required sick pay to at least 40 hours, removing caps on accruing sick leave, and ending a 90-day waiting period that many employers require before workers can claim sick time. The letter also asked that employers stop asking their employees for official doctors’ notes when employees use sick leave.
“Agricultural employers have a duty to help all farmworkers feel confident as they address their own health needs, as well as those of immediate family members,” the letter said.
On March 19, more than 130 people and organizations called in for a teleconference hosted by the Commission on Hispanic Affairs to share information and resources relevant to the state’s Latino population. Comments from those on the call mirrored concerns about information accessibility and safety precautions voiced by the United Farm Workers. Several callers asked specifically about undocumented workers and unemployment benefits, insurance, and testing for the coronavirus.
Staff from the Olympia-based Employment Security Department stressed that citizenship is a federal requirement for unemployment benefits. Enrollment for monthly insurance is available for farmworkers through April 8 via the Washington Health Plan Finder. It has a residency requirement.
Insurance status should not impact the ability of anyone showing symptoms of the coronavirus to be tested, however, organizers said.
Organizers identified several topics from caller concerns: providing solutions for undocumented immigrants, helping the Department of Health provide information for non-English speakers, addressing insurance coverage concerns, and answering questions about coronavirus testing.
Brenda Rodriguez and Moserrat Padilla, representatives from the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, also known as WAISN, said three main types of relief are available to immigrants:
• Unemployment insurance and unemployment benefits are possible for those who are legal residents
• Paid sick leave depends on employers, so some might qualify, while others might not
• Paid family and medical leave through the state should be available for all immigrants, regardless of their status
Padilla noted that an estimated 150,000 agricultural workers in Washington state — or a third of the state’s immigrant population — are uninsured, with no immediate access to health care.
April Admundson, who works with the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program, said the program has benefits for workers with serious medical problems who have worked at least 820 hours during the previous 12 months, regardless of immigration status.
Admundson noted the program’s benefits are separate from unemployment benefits, which require a person being eligible to work in the United States. Spanish speakers can access applications for the paid leave program online at www.paidleave.wa.gov, she said.
Maria Siguenza, of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said her organization had been in contact with the governor’s office to talk about possible avenues to obtain resources for undocumented individuals.
Information is still developing, but Siguenza said there is a program in the Department of Social and Health Services, through the community services division, that identifies resources for undocumented individuals in times of crisis. WAISN has an information hotline at 1-844-724-3737.
Health care and information
Lori Kelley, senior director of quality for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, said staff are working hard to educate patients and community members about the coronavirus, including symptoms, transmission and prevention education in multiple languages.
“We recognize that many people in our communities are unable to work remotely, and we are asking that those individuals take precautions to prevent illness,” she said.
Clinic staff ask patients to call prior to coming in for care so that staff can have proper protective equipment, Kelley said.
“This allows us to minimize potential exposures while ensuring patients receive the most appropriate care for their conditions,” she said. “We are focused on meeting the needs of our patients and the communities we serve, especially patients at higher risk of getting sick.”
The state Department of Health and the Yakima Health District have news conferences and news releases in Spanish, after Spanish media made the request. The city of Yakima and the Yakima Police Department also publish bilingual news releases.
Lilian Bravo, spokeswoman for the Yakima Health District, said the district is working with radio KDNA, the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, and El Sol to get information to Spanish speakers. Laura Armstrong, executive director of La Casa Hogar, said the nonprofit has been in contact with the health district to discuss messaging for Spanish speaking communities to ensure people are accessing information regardless of internet access.
“There are a lot of great resources but mostly they’re online or are fliers, and/or require literacy,” Armstrong said.
As for La Casa Hogar, the nonprofit has created work groups to address messaging and education, and support community needs.
“We are hopeful to figure out a way to make dollars available to families who need them either for income replacement due to laid off work or other direct or indirect impacts of the coronavirus,” she said.
Armstrong said other efforts in the works include sending care packages of preschool activities and supplies to children at the early learning center and supporting adults who are learning how to open and use email accounts. La Casa Hogar is also working with Yakima Valley College professors who teach morning English classes to transition students to online learning platforms.
Paj Nandi, director of community relations and equity for the Washington State Department of Health, said efforts at the state level to reach Spanish speakers include working with Spanish media, quick turnarounds for translating all news releases into Spanish, and passing out fliers with information in Spanish to health care centers. The department is working to translate information into other languages, including indigenous languages, Nandi said.
Nandi said the department also is planning to launch a coronavirus and stigma reduction campaign soon, possibly involving billboards, in both English and Spanish. Health officials have emphasized the virus does not target people of a certain race or ethnicity.
The weekly telephone conferences hosted by the Commission on Hispanic Affairs will be switching to Zoom sessions to accommodate up to 500 people and organizations to help share resources, said the commission’s Executive Director María Sigüenza.
Editorial Note: This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate services still offered by La Casa Hogar.