Workers at Columbia Reach Pack and Hansen Fruit and Cold Storage Co. in Yakima walked out Thursday morning to protest their working conditions.

They held signs asking employers for better COVID-19 safety measures, 6 feet of social distancing in the workplace, and protection from retaliation for protesting. They also want Columbia Reach to provide a hazard pay increase of $2 an hour.

Thursday’s strikes are the sixth and seventh in Yakima County since Monday, with workers calling for paid sick leave, hazard pay, safer working conditions and protection from retaliation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since May 7, workers also have walked out of Frosty Packing and Roche Fruit in Yakima, Matson Fruit Co. and Monson Fruit Co. in Selah, and Allan Bros. in Naches

Organizers said at least six more strikes will likely happen this weekend.

Countering workers’ concerns, area growers said they’re implementing social distancing and sanitizing surfaces more often.

Those efforts have been enough for the Yakima Health District, which sent letters to eight employers this week following site inspections that said the measures in place have met recommended guidelines.

But employers also could be doing more to minimize exposure and improve communication between companies and workers, inspectors said.

Data from the Yakima Health District as of Thursday showed at least 29 confirmed cases of the coronavirus amid workers at Columbia Reach. No confirmed cases had been logged in the district’s data for Hansen Fruit employees.

Growing discontent

Hundreds of strike supporters showed up Thursday morning, traveling on foot or by vehicle between plants in a pack that workers started calling “the caravan.”

They had painted their vehicle windows with messages of support in Spanish. They honked and waved as they drove by. Strikers waved back, held their protest signs higher, and quietly said “Thank you” to each passing vehicle.

Rosalina Gonzales was one of those strikers. She’s worked at Columbia Reach Pack for 19 years. She does the physically demanding work each day to provide for her children and family, she said.

Gonzales, who held a neon poster board sign lettered with “Social Distancing — 6 feet” in bold Sharpie strokes, admitted to being nervous about speaking up. She said she and many other workers normally don’t talk to the press.

But they’ve decided to strike, because it’s the only way they feel the company’s management will listen to their concerns.

“There are a lot of people who have tested positive here,” she said. “I feel like I’m in danger, but I have to work. I have no choice.”

Maria Valdovinos, another mother with children to support, said workers have tried to report their concerns to management but felt ignored. So they continue to report to work — scared.

“Many people don’t know what we have to go through at this work,” she said. “We feel we don’t have support from nobody.”

Valdovinos said the least Columbia Reach could do would be to offer the hazard pay increase to workers that other agricultural employers have extended.

Jackie Garcia was among the more than 20 workers protesting outside Hansen Fruit.

Garcia, 23, had worked at the plant for two months. While she wanted to stay at home with her 7-month-old son, she needed to earn a living.

Garcia said supervisors have been inconsistent in following guidelines. With upper management or regulators around, supervisors would ask workers to stand farther apart.

“Once they left, it was back to normal,” she said.

Also, despite having fewer people, the packing lines would continue at a fast speed, which resulted in fruit not getting picked up.

“They get mad,” she said about supervisors.

In an emailed statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic, Hansen Fruit president and owner Eric Hansen said the strike came as a shock as the facility has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Hansen said the company has provided personal protective equipment to employees free of charge as it became available, restricted hiring to prevent exposure from workers at facilities with COVID-19 cases, and intensified cleaning efforts.

{span style=”background-color: #deffde;”}”{/span}There is nothing more important to us than their safety,” Hansen wrote. “They are relying on us and we are relying on them. We are taking care of each other. This isn’t easy for anyone and we appreciate that.

“If this strike is truly about worker safety, we are all in on that effort and 100% committed to the cause. If this is about money, then I am greatly disappointed the strike is misleading the public.”

Representatives from Columbia Reach did not return phone calls prior to publication of this story.

Meeting standards

The Yakima Health Department sent letters to 10 agricultural employers this week after site visits. The department found prevention measures at all 10 facilities were “meeting guidelines.”

“Based on what we saw the prevention measures you have in place are meeting guidelines,” Shawn Magee, environmental health director for the district, wrote in his letter to Columbia Reach.

But the district also included bullet-point recommendations to further minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure and to improve communication between companies and their employees.

The review for Columbia Reach said the company should increase signage, in both English and Spanish, about the importance of social distancing and also obtain and require the use of masks for employees.

The Yakima Health District’s reviews this week did not include one for Hansen Fruit.

Jon Devaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said in an interview Wednesday that growers have made every effort to stockpile sanitation and personal protective equipment for workers and also had modified workplace conditions to allow increased social distancing.

“We don’t think this is primarily about safety,” Devaney said. “Many of the workers’ demands are about increased pay. There are discussions that will happen about that.

“But you shouldn’t feel safer because you are paid more,” he said. “Employers need to do what they can to keep workers safe.”

Gonzales said she and other workers worry about what getting sick could mean financially for their families, especially when many Hispanic families already are struggling with additional unexpected costs for food and child care due to school closures from the pandemic.

“If you go to the hospital right now, how much do you think that will be?” Gonzales asked.

Jorge Maldonado, a quiet man who spoke calmly behind his mask, said he went on strike because his brother had been hospitalized by COVID-19.

“He is dying, and that has been very hard for me and my family,” Maldonado said. “I do not want this to happen to someone else. This is the reason I am here.”

Meanwhile companies are meeting with protesting workers.

Matson Fruit Co. said in an emailed statement that the company has met with five employees representing the group that protested Wednesday.

“During the meeting, we learned of numerous safety and corporate cultural concerns,” the company wrote. “We have already begun implementing changes on both fronts.”

The company said it has secured enough cloth face masks to give one to every employee free of charge. Matson Fruit also contacted the Yakima Health Department, state Department of Health and the state Department of Labor and Industries for additional feedback.

Hanson Fruit met with some of the protesting workers Thursday. One employee provided an update to protesters Thursday afternoon. Among the items up for discussion is the possibility of providing additional pay. The employee told protesters the company is discussing that matter with its attorney.

Continuing community concern

Cristina Ortega and Giovanni Severino, with the Latino Community Fund, showed up at Columbia Reach around noon Thursday.

They brought pizza and cases of bottled water. Striking workers listened attentively while Ortega announced that her organization wanted to ensure their safety would be respected and their voices heard.

The Latino Community Fund is among several groups providing support to protesters. Staff from Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, a farmworkers union in Skagit County that recently sued the state for better working conditions, also has been in town helping workers organize.

“Right now, more than anything, the message is that their health is important, and not just during a crisis,” Ortega said. “They need the support of their employers now more than ever.”

Ortega has attended every strike in the Yakima Valley to date, bringing supplies and capturing video. She said the workers’ demands aren’t unreasonable.

“They are fighting for their rights, and for basic rights,” she said. “We’re talking about clean drinking water or water to wash their hands. I am proud of them for standing up and speaking up. They have been silent for too long.”

This story was updated to add comments from Hansen Fruit owner Eric Hansen.

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Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.