LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Yakima County in rural Washington has the most COVID-19 cases per capita among West Coast states. Those cases originate from two hot spots - long-term care facilities and agriculture. Apples and cherries are a large part of Yakima's economy. Northwest Public Broadcasting's Enrique Perez de la Rosa reports on how farmworkers and their employers are being affected.
ENRIQUE PEREZ DE LA ROSA, BYLINE: On May 30, David Cruz died of COVID-19 before he could finish retailing the roof of his home. He only replaced about a quarter of the old, darkened tiles with clean, green ones. His wife, Reyna, says he was a hard worker, taking on projects at home after logging long hours at Allan Brothers Fruit. He built boxes for apples at the end of the packing line there for over 10 years.
REYNA: He'd always be on time. He never misses a job. He never. Sometimes, he's feeling sick. I tell him to stay, and he said, no, I'm going.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: Long before David got sick, when the pandemic first came to Yakima in March, Reyna says he started to reconsider going to work. Co-workers started getting sick.
REYNA: He told me, I'm scared to go to work. I say, if you are scared, you stay. You stay in the house. You're not going. Forget about the bills.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: In Yakima, agriculture employs about a third of the workforce. Most of those farmworkers are Latino. Allan Brothers CEO Miles Kohl says his company is doing all it can to keep workers safe, but farmworkers everywhere are still at risk.
MILES KOHL: I wish the American public could appreciate that the agricultural community, that workforce is continuing to work, putting themselves out in an environment, by just being out of the home, where they have a higher likelihood of having an exposure.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: Because of that likelihood, hundreds of farmworkers went on strike for weeks this spring at seven of Yakima's fruit packing facilities. They demanded more protections against the virus and hazard pay. David Cruz died while the strikes were ongoing, and workers took note.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) David, David, David.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: Striking workers have placed altars in his honor in front of Allan Brothers and offices for health and labor agencies. Farm worker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia has helped organize the worker strikes. Edgar Franks is their political director. He says weak emergency rules for agriculture have broader consequences for Yakima.
EDGAR FRANKS: If nothing is being done to protect these workers, it has the potential to crash the whole economy, along with causing a health crisis.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: The state of Washington has issued safety guidelines for fruit packing facilities, telling employers to hand out masks and install plastic dividers between workers. But how these facilities implement them can vary. Jon DeVaney is president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. He says each plant faces its own challenges.
JON DEVANEY: Some already have made transitions to more automated processes, so they already have fewer staff on their lines. Others have had more difficulty making those adjustments. And everyone has struggled to get enough personal protective equipment.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: Some Yakima companies, like Allan Brothers, where David Cruz worked, are also asking the Yakima Health District for feedback on safety measures they've put in place. But health officer Dr. Teresa Everson says other companies are refusing to let health experts in for inspections or testing of employees.
TERESA EVERSON: Which is incredibly frustrating as a public health official. At some point, we are going to need to have consequences for employers who choose to turn a blind eye on an outbreak that they may have in their facility.
PEREZ DE LA ROSA: The essential workforce here is much bigger than in other places - about 63% of workers. That's a lot of people potentially exposed to the virus who could take it to neighboring counties.
For NPR News, I'm Enrique Perez de la Rosa in Yakima County.
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