[May 21, 2020] On March 12 an H-2A visa guest worker living in a Stemilt Growers barracks in Mattawa, Washington, began to cough.  He called a hotline, was tested and found out he had COVID-19.  He and five of his coworkers were then kept in the barracks for the next two weeks.A month later three Stemilt H-2A workers in a barracks in East Wenatchee began to cough too.  Before their tests even came back, three more started coughing.  Soon they and their roommates were all in quarantine.  Doctor Peter Rutherford of the Confluence Health Clinic called Stemilt and suggested that they test all 63 workers in the barracks.  Thirty-eight tested positive.  Then some of those workers who’d tested negative began to test positive too.Since the H-2A workers infected in the Stemilt barracks arrived in February, and didn’t manifest symptoms until March and April, they must have contracted the virus in the U.S.  Guest workers, therefore, are getting infected once they arrive. The novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout Central Washington.  By mid-May rural Yakima County had 1,203 cases – 122 reported on May 15 alone – and 47 people had died. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast – 455 cases per 100,000 residents. For over a week now, hundreds of workers in the same area have been walking out of the apple packing sheds to demand better protections and more money for working in a situation where they may be exposed.  Two have now begun a hunger strike.”Workers are trying to call attention to the danger to the whole community,” says Rosalinda Guillen a longtime farmworker organizer and director of the advocacy group Community to Community. Meanwhile, thousands more H-2A guest workers are scheduled to arrive in the area, first for the cherry harvest and then to pick apples.

H-2A workers (named for the visa program through which they enter the country) are recruited to work in the U.S. on temporary contracts; they can only work for the employer that recruits them, and must leave once the work is done. For the last decade prefab barracks have been springing up in the middle of Washington’s blossoming apple trees, in orchards often miles from the nearest town. Inside, H-2A workers usually sleep in bunk beds, four to a room, and cook their meals in a common kitchen. Some barracks are ringed by a chain link fence topped by barbed wire, while others have no barriers. If workers want to go into town to buy groceries or to a clinic, they depend on the grower to provide transportation.The fate of thousands of these workers is at stake in a regulation handed down last week by Washington state’s departments of Health and of Labor and Industries that permits housing conditions that could cause the virus to spread rapidly.  Sleeping in bunk beds in dormitories, according to these state authorities, is an acceptable risk.  Yet according to Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Barry Kling, farmworkers are more vulnerable to getting COVID-19 because they live in these very close quarters.  “The lives of these workers are being sacrificed for the profit of growers,” Guillen charges.Washington State ignores the scienceThe barracks for Stemilt’s infected workers, like those housing thousands of others, are divided into rooms around a common living and kitchen area.  Four workers live in each room, sleeping in two bunk beds.  Stemilt says that it has 90 such dormitory units in central Washington, with 1,677 beds.  Half are bunk beds. Maintaining physical separation, especially in labor camps, “will be impossible under conditions H-2A workers typically experience in the United States,” concludes a report in April by the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM — the Migrant Rights Center).  There is no testing for H-2A workers as they enter the country, and until the infected group was found in Washington, there was no testing for them here either. 

According to Drs. Anjum Hajat and Catherine Karr, two leading epidemiologists at the University of Washington, “People living in congregate housing such as the typical farmworker housing … are at unique risk for the spread of COVID-19 because they are consistently in close contact with others … crowding increases the risk of transmission of influenza and similar illnesses.  If individual rooms are impractical, the number of farmworkers per room should be reduced and beds should be separated by 6 feet.  Bunk beds that cannot meet this standard should be disallowed.”Washington’s state agencies decided to ignore Hajat and Karr’s testimony, however.  In contrast, the same scientific analysis was the basis for a decision by Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration banning bunk beds.  Its regulation issued in May tells employers:  “Do not allow the use of double bunk beds by unrelated individuals,” and “beds and cots must be spaced at least six (6) feet apart between frames in all directions.”Oregon authorities resisted pressure from employers to change the rule, but after a Farm Bureau survey of 323 growers claimed that it would result in losing housing for 5,000 farmworkers, its implementation was delayed until June 1. Oregon, however, isn’t even among the top 10 states importing H-2A workers. California growers last year were certified to fill 23,321 farm labor jobs with H-2A recruits, yet no agency keeps track of the number of workers sleeping in bunk beds less than six feet apart.  How their health has been impacted, therefore, is basically unknown.Washington’s growers, however, have become much more dependent than California’s on bringing in H-2A workers. Last year employers estimated that 65,358 people were employed picking apples in Washington, making it by far the largest apple-producing state in the U.S.  Its growers were certified for 26,226 H-2A workers.  The vast majority worked in apples – as much as a third of the workforce.  One company alone, Zirkle Fruit Company, was certified for 3,400 workers, while Stemilt was certified for 1,517.

The state’s new rule for housing those workers says “Both beds of bunk beds may be used,” for workers in a “group shelter,” consisting of 15 or fewer workers who live, work and travel to and from the fields together.  Most Washington State growers would have little trouble meeting this requirement, since their barracks arrangement normally groups four bedrooms in the same pod.  Stemilt also has vans that normally hold 14 people, conveniently almost the same number as in the bed requirement.  A work crew of 14 to 15 workers would not be unusual.Who benefits from the new regulationBy framing the bunk bed requirement in this way, Washington’s Department of Health effectively told growers that they did not have to cut the number of workers in each bedroom, and in each dormitory, in half.  The rules of the H-2A program require growers to provide housing.  If the number of workers safely housed in each dormitory were halved, growers would have two options.  They could build or rent more housing, which would be an additional cost.  Stemilt, with 850 bunk beds, would have to find additional housing for over 400 workers, and Zirkle perhaps even a thousand.Dan Fazio, head of the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), one of the largest H-2A contractors in the U.S., called restrictions on beds to keep workers safely separated “catastrophic” and “a political stunt by unions and contingency-fee lawyers.” (Attempts to reach Fazio and other grower representatives for comments for this story  were unsuccessful.)Alternatively, growers could bring fewer H-2A workers to the U.S., and instead hire more workers either locally, or attract workers living in other parts of the country.  This is what growers did until the H-2A program began to expand rapidly 10 years ago.  In 2010 they were certified for only 2,981 guest workers.  “Farm workers living in California and other states knew there were jobs here, and they’d come,” explains Ramon Torres, president of Washington’s new farm labor union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  “Most of them had been doing this for many years.  But when growers started hiring H-2A workers, they stopped coming.  They couldn’t spend hundreds of dollars to get here, and then find out that the jobs were already filled.”If the number of H-2A workers were cut in half because of the bunk bed requirement, however, Fazio and WAFLA would lose money, since their income is based on the number of workers they supply to growers.  Last year WAFLA brought 12,000 H-2A workers to Washington, charging growers for each worker (although it doesn’t disclose publicly how much).

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David Bacon