Produce Inspectors Find Safety & Solidarity in Union

 Washington State - In the middle of the worst zone of the pandemic on the West Coast, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) fruit and vegetable inspectors are fighting negligence that has left the majority of their coworkers exposed to COVID-19 in Yakima and Wenatchee.

Abe Armstrong, a fruit and vegetable inspector at the WSDA in Wenatchee for the past seven years, recently returned to his job after several weeks of convalescence due to COVID-19. He contracted the virus at work.

“Our managers really didn’t take it that seriously. I still don’t think they are,” he said.

“They’re pretty good about doing the bare minimum, enough that they’re not technically breaking any laws, and nothing more. I feel the current epidemic requires a bit more.”

World Class Produce
According to WSDA, agriculture brings in over $10 billion in revenue each year and employs some 164,000 people. The WSDA’s fruit and vegetable inspectors make sure Washington’s produce remains some of the highest quality in the world. 

Micah Cooper has been a produce inspector in Yakima for the past five and a half years.

“[Our work] upholds the reputation of our fruit and vegetables, which is world class,” he said. “We have high standards.” 

But the industry’s COVID-19 safety standards have not been as robust. Private fruit growers have also failed to protect the warehouse employees packing the produce.

Workers at seven Yakima fruit and vegetable warehouses went on strike in May to demand proper PPE and better safety protocols at work. Agreements have been reached at some of the warehouses, but others remain on strike as their coworkers struggle to recover from COVID.

Pitifully Slow
“Our response [to the pandemic] was pitifully slow,” said Cooper, echoing Armstrong’s concerns in Wenatchee. “We’ve slowly worked with management to get more PPE. For a while it was fend for yourself, then it came in at a trickle.”

In the early weeks of the pandemic, no masks were offered to the fruit and vegetable inspectors. Sanitizing wipes were in short supply and doled out in plastic baggies, often not enogh to last even a full day of work. 

Employees say management dragged their feet on responding to COVID-19. One described a top-down “anti-safety culture,” where managers who could have worked remotely chose instead to continue to report for work without masks.

Inspectors do most of their work in the field, traveling in state vehicles to many produce packing warehouses where they collect and analyze samples.

Alfredo Hernandez, a produce inspector for six years, felt concerned about the dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It does worry us quite a bit, because we are around a lot of people doing different jobs that are communicating with truckers, people who are in and out of the building,” said Hernandez. 

“It was also worrisome having to reuse and sanitize the gloves, instead of throwing them away.” 

Produce inspectors also questioned the safety of driving shared agency vehicles to on-site visits. The CDC recommends professional cleaning of upholstery for COVID-19 safety, for example, something the WSDA is not performing in between employees’ uses of the vehicles. 

“They say they’re sanitizing [the vehicles],” said Armstrong. “Wiping things down with a Lysol wipe is not going to do it.”

As concern grew about the lack of leadership in enforcing basic safety protocols, contact tracing, and notification of COVID exposure at privately-owned warehouses, inspectors started to notice people around them falling ill. Management said nothing.

“Many people were sick, and weren’t communicated with about that for days on days or weeks until someone read something on Facebook and then approached the manager. Then they called the facility and they confirmed that some inspectors had been exposed. That was the only way they knew,” said Hernandez.

Solidarity Works
In the third week of May, the fruit and vegetable inspectors met with WSDA management.

Attendees presented 11 safety protocols they wanted to see implemented. Despite some equivocation, WSDA management agreed to address these concerns.

“Through emails, meetings and phone calls, it has become a safer workplace,” said Cooper.

“Once we raised the concern about the masks, the agency supplied two masks to all of us inspectors.”

“The mask requirement was helpful. Even more helpful, though, was over time, getting a large and steady supply of hand sanitizer and gloves and cleaning wipes. We’re getting all the PPE we need now, and the social distancing has been taken really seriously.” 

WSDA management also committed to notifying all bargaining unit members in a given geographical area whenever warehouse personnel test positive for COVID-19. They’re allowing employees to use their own vehicles for site visits and making more of an effort to help inspectors maintain social distancing while they work.

Cooper is hopeful that putting pressure on WSDA could improve things for another at-risk group in his industry: the workers packing the fruit they test. 

“A rising tide lifts all ships,” he said.

Inspectors aren’t alone in fearing for their safety at work. They often work side-by-side with the line workers who are packing the produce and preparing it for export.

“We’re so intertwined in the same industry that it raises standards for us too,” said Micah Cooper.

Hernandez said they share similar struggles with the line workers.

“I think we are all fighting for the same thing: safety. Safety because we’re concerned that we’re not being taken care of,” he said.

Safety in Solidarity
For his part, Armstrong is grateful the COVID-19 he contracted at work didn’t spread to his wife or kids, but he worries that the agency’s handling of exposures could worsen rates of COVID-19 infection in the broader community in Wenatchee.

When Armstrong got his positive test, he had a doctor’s note instructing him to stay home. If it weren’t for the doctor’s note, he fears he would have passed the virus on to his co-workers.

“Another inspector was asymptomatic and he worked the entire day—and then found out he was positive when he went home. That just seems like the worst-case scenario to me,” said Armstrong.

“I think most of us understand that inspectors are at high risk. I don’t want us to be moving around a bunch and working in every warehouse. Then it’ll get spread into the community. We could be vectors.” 

Armstrong finds safety in solidarity with other employees at WSDA.

“I have seen the way management would like to treat its employees,” he said. “I know that without our union, they’d be able to just do whatever they wanted. Our union gives us a lot of protection.”

Hernandez agreed. 

“It’s a way for us to work together in order to make great changes. There is power in numbers.”

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