The two most recent reported COVID-19 cases at Gilbert Orchards came July 23 and 26.

As of Tuesday, the operation had recorded 35 total COVID-19 cases, according to Yakima Health District data provided to the Yakima Herald-Republic. Twenty-six of those, however, came before June 8.

President Sean Gilbert said the distribution of masks was the game-changer. The company has taken other measures, such as social distancing and increased cleaning. However, Gilbert chalked much of the progress since June to mask distribution.

“I just can’t put it on any single (other) factor,” he said. “That was the turning point.”

Recent numbers from the Yakima Health District show that the agriculture industry, like the rest of the county, has seen progress in slowing COVID-19 transmission.

In total, Yakima County had 1,591 cases in the agricultural and food production industry as of Thursday — about 15% of total cases. Health officials began tracking cases in mid-March.

Outbreaks are down. An outbreak is defined as any facility having at least two positive cases within 14 days.

In mid-June, when Yakima County was seeing days with 200-plus new cases, the county had 21 outbreaks, with eight of them in agriculture.

As of Tuesday, there were currently three outbreaks of COVID-19 in Yakima County, with one outbreak in agriculture.

Fewer cases, even with H-2A workers

Shawn Magee, environmental health director for the Yakima Health District, said there are still new cases, but at a far slower rate.

“It’s not at such an alarming rate as we were at our peak,” he said. He has been involved with a technical assistance team that has worked with agricultural employers to implement safety measures.

That’s noteworthy, considering the influx of H-2A guest workers in recent months.

As of June, nearly 25,000 H-2A workers were certified to work for agricultural employers in Washington state during the 2020 fiscal year, which started in October and ends Sept. 30, according to federal data.

Additional data shows that more than 5,800 workers are certified to work at agricultural sites in Yakima County. And more than 11,000 workers total were certified to work for Yakima County agricultural employers at farms throughout Central Washington.

Outreach

Farmworker advocates still feel there is cause for concern, namely because farmworkers, especially foreign guest workers, might not feel comfortable speaking out about safety concerns.

During the peak harvest season, the Northwest Justice Project’s farmworker unit does a robust outreach to check in on farmworkers, especially H-2A workers working in guest worker housing.

Such outreach has been much more difficult this year given restrictions due to COVID-19, said Michele Besso, senior attorney for the farmworker unit of the Northwest Justice Project in Yakima. Many housing facilities are limiting visitors.

One concern for Besso is that the Yakima Health District is not mandating widespread testing. A spreadsheet provided to the Yakima Herald-Republic shows some facilities have worked with the agency on testing while others have declined to do so.

“How do we get our arms around the extent of the problem?” Besso said.

Magee said a public health officer could mandate testing. The Yakima Health District has focused, for now, on working with the employer and to advocate for testing, especially in the event of new cases and outbreaks.

“We’re going to keep pushing for testing,” he said.

Elsewhere in the state

While Yakima County has shown some signs of progress, other agricultural areas of the state have not fared as well.

Okanogan County is reporting the highest rate of new cases statewide. The county’s rate of new cases is 718.5 per 100,000 people, as of the two weeks ending July 31. Yakima County’s is less than half that with 316.1. Yakima County was as high as 747.4 in early June.

The statewide rate is 135.3. The state’s goal is fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 people over two weeks.

In late July, the state Department of Labor and Industries ordered Gebbers Farms in Brewster to remove bunk beds from its farmworker housing or have workers in shelter groups in light of the death of an H-2A worker from COVID-19-related illness in early July, according to The Seattle Times. L&I issued the order after site visits that showed the grower was not following emergency rules regarding farmworker housing. The company denied L&I’s claims, stating that it already had workers in groups.

A second H-2A worker, who was in quarantine after showing symptoms, died later that same month, according to The Seattle Times.

Testing at the facility showed dozens of positive COVID-19 cases.

The outbreak at Gebbers Farms, which employs 4,500 workers at its cherry and apple orchards, has been top of mind for farmworker advocates when voicing concern about farmworker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Word of an outbreak at Gebbers Farms’ housing came when farmworkers contacted Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers.

Nicholson said in an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic that he heard that guest workers there feared losing work if they voiced concerns about getting testing or other safety measures.

Nicholson has been driving to orchards and housing facilities across the state and reporting violations to L&I as he hears of them. Many times, workers will call him, like those at Gebbers Farms.

“For us, it’s all predicated on workers to have a voice,” he said.

Ultimately the fact that L&I’s investigation and order to Gebbers occurred after there were COVID-19 deaths shows the agency’s continued challenge to enforce any rules concerning agricultural facilities, Nicholson said.

The agency has been short-staffed, Nicholson said. That’s made it difficult for them to promptly and properly respond to any number of issues, such as sexual harassment and pesticide spraying violations, he said.

“Coming into the pandemic, we knew the cards were stacked against farmworkers,” he said.

Protests and lawsuits

Farmworker advocates have voiced concerns since mid-March that local and state agencies wouldn’t be able to address the safety concerns of agricultural workers.

In May, workers from at least six different fruit packing houses in Yakima County went on strike for several weeks in hopes that their employers would address safety concerns as well as compensate workers for the additional risk. The strikes ended with varying results. Employers responded with more robust safety plans, including mask distribution, physical barriers and social distancing. One employer set up testing for employees. Some of the workers signed contracts with employers while others returned to work after receiving verbal agreements.

The fruit packing house protests, along with rising cases in Yakima County, caught the attention of state leaders. In mid-May, a team of infection specialists from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to Yakima County to aid the Yakima Health District in outbreak efforts. Part of that effort including examining outbreaks in the agriculture industry.

The state Department of Health issued more detailed guidelines for the agriculture industry in late May. Gov. Jay Inslee also issued a proclamation that provided additional health and safety guidelines for agricultural employers.

Some pursued legal action. Familias Unidas por la Justicia, or FUJ, a farmworkers union in Burlington filed two different lawsuits against the state Department of Health and state Department of Labor and Industries.

The first lawsuit, filed with Skagit County Superior Court in April, was mostly resolved when the two agencies issued emergency rules for farmworker housing in mid-May.

FUJ sued the state agencies again in June, this time in Thurston County Superior Court. The lawsuit contends bunk beds do not meet the minimum requirements for social distancing in shared housing, using studies from two University of Washington epidemiologists.

During a July 17 hearing, Judge John Skinder ruled in favor of the agencies, stating that they did not “act in an arbitrary or capricious manner” in developing the emergency rules.

The result wasn’t surprising to the union or Columbia Legal Services, which represented the union. Andrea Schmitt, attorney for Columbia Legal Services, said after the ruling that it would be a tough legal standard but that it allowed issues to be brought to light.

Indeed, the case allowed the FUJ and Columbia Legal to voice concerns over the concept of grouping workers together. One reason state agencies allowed bunk beds was because of the “shelter group” concept, where groups of workers live, travel and work together. By having workers in groups, a person infected with COVID-19 would expose far fewer people.

Schmitt said in an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic in July that shelter groups would force together people who don’t know each other and would make workers more vulnerable.

Besso, the Northwest Justice Project attorney, said she’s concerned that agricultural employers have been able to get variances which have allowed 20 to 25 workers in a group. Without a variance, groups must be fewer than 15 workers.

“If one gets sick, then they all get sick,” Besso said. “The model relies on accepting that teams of farmworkers will get sick.”

At work

Gilbert Orchards, which grows a variety of tree fruit, including cherries and apples, received a variance that allows it to have shelter groups of 24 workers. However, Gilbert said the variance enables them to do away with bunk beds since they could space single beds far enough apart in each room. Workers currently live in houses that house 24 workers on each floor. Each floor has six bedrooms that each sleep four workers. There are different entrances for each level to prevent the groups from interacting.

Gilbert also installed plexiglass barriers in the sleeping areas and common areas. Fans were also installed on the windows to add ventilation to the rooms. Housing is cleaned while the workers are at the orchards.

According to the Yakima Health District, there were three outbreaks at temporary housing facilities that resulted in 72 COVID-19 cases. All three were happening in May or June with the latest one extending into early-July.

Just a single case in a housing facility qualifies as an outbreak because the risk of transmission is higher with people living together, said Magee of the Yakima Health District.

“Those all happened close to our peak (in May and June),” he said. “We fully expected to see an outbreak in these temporary farmworker campuses (but), they essentially tapered off.”

Magee said growers have been cooperative and responded quickly to any outbreaks or surges in cases, and he believes that is reflected in the downward trend in numbers.

“It tells us the emergency rules are being followed, and those infection prevention measures are being followed,” he said.

Staying vigilant

The case with Gebbers Farms and the surge in cases of Okanogan County, however, serve a reminder of the importance of not backing off with safety measures. Such cases are brought up frequently in a statewide COVID-19 farmworker response meeting held every other week, Magee said.

“I felt prior to that death, our response was pretty robust,” he said. “Anytime there’s a death in any industry, it brings a new perspective to the table and makes everyone reevaluate if we’re doing enough.”

Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League, which works with growers on labor issues, believes that growers are starting to settle into the routine of identifying workers with symptoms and minimizing exposure to other workers.

He’s encouraged that the percentage of COVID-19 cases from the agriculture and food production industry — 15% — has been proportionate to the percentage of residents who work in agriculture.

But Gempler said neither growers nor workers can rest easy with several months of harvest still ahead. The cherry harvest is wrapping up, and several crops will be harvested in the coming months, including apples and hops.

“It’s been three months since May 1, when things really started kicking in,” he said. “Our agriculture rules didn’t even go into effect until late May. There’s a steep learning curve for everyone. We still have three long months to go in the fields and longer with packing and processing.”

Gilbert said he knows it’s important to stay diligent on cleaning, masks and other safety measures at the orchard and in farmworker housing.

“My biggest fear is we will unintentionally let our guard down,” he said. “My message with my team and, I hope, for the community, the state, is to stay vigilant and keep up all the hard work. Cause it could be a disruption if a group of people or (individuals) don’t take this seriously.”

Reaching out

Advocates said they will keep working to connect workers and hold growers accountable. In late July, a series of protests were held in Central Washington to advocate for farmworker safety. They were co-organized by Brian Vázquez, an English teacher at Wahluke Junior High in Mattawa and Eduardo Castaneda Díaz, the Democratic opponent against state Rep. Tom Dent for his state 13th Legislative District seat.

Both have grown up in farmworker families and have worked in the fields themselves.

“We need to shine a light on the issues our farmworkers are struggling through at the moment,” Vázquez said.

As the duo started talking to workers to organize the protests in communities like Quincy and Ellensburg, it became clear workers did not feel comfortable reporting concerns and cases. Vázquez said farmworkers have long faced challenges in voicing issues, and such challenges have increased with the pandemic. The goal of the protests is to provide a space for farmworkers to share stories.

“By doing (protests), it allows them to speak up and share their experiences and create awareness,” Vázquez said.

Northwest Justice Project has relied on Spanish-language radio and Facebook to provide information to workers. They include phone numbers for local clinics, community resources and information about their rights. They also dropped off information at farmworker housing during working hours.

Besso of the Northwest Justice Project hopes the information will help workers know their rights and what options, such as paid sick leave, are available if they do get COVID-19.

Still, it’s no replacement for in-person content. She hopes to ramp up in person visits over time and in a safe manner.

“In-person connection is very valued (by farmworkers),” she said. “It’s very important in building confidence and trust.”

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Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang