It’s a shame that the September 14, 2020 article on Crosscut by Lily Fowler misrepresents and distorts the facts about farmworkers and Covid-19. The story reports on the loss of three farmworkers on a large fruit farm in Eastern Washington and the decision of a few of the guest farmworkers to return home to Mexico due to the risks of Covid. This is a tragic loss that should not be exploited for political gain by union activists as this article demonstrates. The facts show that not only is the farm not guilty of the abuse of workers as reported in the article, but it has done an outstanding job of protecting the health of its workers.

Here are some clarifying facts that will reveal the misrepresentations and distortions:

  • As reported in Capital Press on September 10, 3,000 workers at Gebbers Farms were tested with 22 testing positive. The less than 1% positive rate is considerably better than the state average of 3.5% according to the news report. This information was readily available to the Crosscut reporter and editors.
  • The company involved, Gebbers Farms, paid for all or a portion of the cost of transporting the bodies or ashes of those who died from Covid.
  • The workers testing positive were not in “isolation” as reported but were attended to as specified under government guidelines.
  • The rules to protect farmworkers implemented by the state are among the most stringent in the nation and clearly there was enforcement as recognized in other parts of the story.
  • Mike Gempler is quoted as talking about “newly arrived farmers” not knowing how to deal with Covid-19. It seems clear he was referring to newly arrived farmworkers, not farmers. However, the “typo” may not be accidental as it supports the main storyline that farmers are irresponsible and not up to the task of protecting workers.
  • At least two of the workers interviewed admitted to continuing to work despite not feeling well. This is a clear violation of the company, state and federal Covid-19 guidance. All were informed because Gebbers had been providing bilingual information from the public health office since February. These workers put other workers at risk and did not see a doctor even though guest workers are covered by the state under workers compensation.
  • All farms were obligated to protect workers under existing state Labor & Industries rules and most followed community and national health guidelines, as well as those provided by industry groups, well before the state issued enforceable rules on April 16.
  • While farms hiring guest workers are responsible for returning them to their homes at the farm’s expense, when a worker leaves the job before the term of the contract the farm cannot know where they are and if they have returned home. Reports from other workers state that some who left went to California and some back home to Mexico.
  • Fowler’s story reports that a few guest workers, twelve in all, returned to their homes in Mexico out of concern for their health and safety. Out of the 3000 guest workers employed by this farm, it is not unusual for a few to return home before completing the season.

The fact that over 99% this year remained and continued the harvest was neither reported nor properly explained. These jobs are life changing. Guest workers who work for the season are among the top one percent of wage earners in this troubled country. As noted, they received $15.83 minimum wage this year but most earn considerably more due to incentive pay. That compares to $10 per day working on Mexican farms. Free transportation, housing and other benefits, combined with likely the most stringent worker protections of any employment category, make these highly valued jobs. Sadly, despite record unemployment, very few US workers choose to participate in this important work of feeding the rest of us.

What is most troubling is that the reporter uses the tragic circumstances to highlight the accusations of two competing unions, both trying to exploit the difficulties faced by farmers and farmworkers as essential workers providing food for our communities and country. These accusations are false and highly irresponsible –– as is the reporting without fact checking. This is not the first time that Crosscut has published a story carrying the agenda-driven line of unions who wish to demonize farmers to force union contracts. 

We called out the June 29 report by Emily McCarty who blatantly disregarded other widely reported facts that made clear it was the social interaction among farmworkers that was the primary issue in the disturbingly high levels of illness among this group, not the farm work itself. This later report continues this false and harmful narrative. In Yakima with a high incidence of illness, it is clear that addressing the social interaction was the key to reducing the level of new illnesses and deaths.

The claims of union activists, Guillen and Ruddy, are outrageous. The two unions, Familias Unidas por las Justicia (FUJ), created by Rosalinda Guillen, and United Farm Workers (UFW) are competing in our state for dominance. Despite the fact that each calls the other a liar in court documents, the reporter felt no obligation to verify if the wild accusations had any validity. The court documents referred to can be found here

Rosalinda Guillen and her union have been trying to stop the 20,000 plus guest workers from coming to harvest our crops for years. When Covid-19 hit, she cynically used this as a pretense to carry out this campaign against guest workers. When the state refused her demands, she sued and sued again after the state issued the very stringent worker protection rules. Her calling it a “quasi-slave” system would be laughable were it not for reporters providing her a platform for an agenda aimed at taking money from workers’ paychecks.

The article states that UFW is “one of the nation’s largest farmworker unions. Maybe, but that doesn’t make them large. In California, the union has declined from the heyday of Cesar Chavez and now represents fewer than one percent of California’s farmworkers. The union has lost certification vote after certification vote, and the court was forced to take the dues from the few remaining members to pay a $2 million legal settlement to their own union employees for retaliation and failure to pay required wages. It is a union in disarray and whose only real opportunity is to get media coverage of the false accusations against farmers and false claims of victory.

Trust is the underlying issue here. Americans across the political divide trust farmers –– a recent poll showed that trust at 84%. They don’t trust reporters and the media anywhere near the same level. Yet, a respected publication like Crosscut has shown willingness to listen to those with a financial motive to undermine trust in farmers. Farmers are learning they have to speak out and tell the truth. Maybe someday Crosscut will listen.