As two employees succumb to the effects of community spread of Covid-19, competing farmworker unions are trying to exploit these tragedies for financial and political gain.
Every death from the pandemic is a terrible tragedy. But, it is simply wrong to try to exploit these tragedies for the purpose of financial and political gain. United Farm Workers (UFW) and Familias Unidas por las Justicia (FUJ), two competing farmworker unions in Washington state are doing just that.
The loss of two farmworkers at one of the largest fruit growing operations in the state and nation, Gebbers Farms, is the latest of several examples. These groups blame farmers for not protecting workers and thereby causing their deaths. Media reports typically repeat these lies without serious fact checking, such as this Crosscut article, or this example from New York Times.
Gebbers Farms is a very respected sixth generation family farm with a long history of leadership among farmers and within the community, and their Covid response exemplified that. At the beginning of the pandemic they brought in an infectious disease specialist to prepare detailed protection plans for their employees, outpacing the creation of rules by state officials and agencies. There is no credible evidence that safety rules were not followed. Indeed, there is very credible evidence that the farm did an outstanding job of implementing rules and protecting workers. A July 18 letter to Gebbers from Dr. John McCarthy of the Okanogan County Public Health Department stated:
“ Community Health Director for Okanogan County Public Health, has informed me that Gebbers Farms’ COVID-19 protocols and implementation of those protocols have been impeccable, and that Gebbers Farms has fostered a great working relationship with Okanogan County Public Health. She has also informed me that Gebbers Farms began implementing COVID-19 protocols before any other growers in the Okanogan County area. I commend Gebbers Farms in taking its early and diligent action and in implementing stringent COVID-19 protocols.”
Despite these facts, the union organizers want the reporters, public and lawmakers to believe it is the farm work that is causing the deaths of these workers. The facts show otherwise. The Hispanic population in the United States has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. There have been a number of explanations for this, but it has clearly emerged that while farmworker protections on the job have been effective, these do not protect them from community transmission off the job.
In Washington, despite false accusations by union leaders, facts on the ground show that community transmission, not farmwork, is behind the higher than average illnesses among this population. The Seattle Times in a June 22 report at the height of the large spike in cases in Yakima County made clear that community transmission was the driver of these illnesses.
Statistics from late June from Yakima County show that while 14% of the population there works in agriculture, only 12.4% of Covid cases were farm workers – Hispanic and other. This supports the position of the health experts that Yakima’s infection rate is a community issue, and activists (and reporters) who blame farmers are either ill-informed or dishonest.
In another county in the state where a substantial number of farmworkers are employed, the health department determined that none of the illnesses among workers at one farm were work related.
In the case of the two deaths among farmworkers at Gebbers Farms, it appears that even the assumption of one of the deaths from Covid-19 might be premature. The Wenatchee World reported that one of the workers, Earl Edwards, was placed into company-provided quarantine facilities on July 21 after a visit with a doctor, and on the morning of his death on July 31 did not have a fever or show other Covid symptoms and appeared to be doing well.
The accusations by activists and the reporters complicit in amplifying them have their intended effect. In the case of Gebbers, the state jumped in and issued demands that suggested the farm was guilty and if demands were not met they could face criminal charges. This, despite the fact that the farm’s applications for variances allowed under the Emergency Rules were ignored by the state and the state twice inspected the farm and its worker safety protocols without finding any fault.
The goal of many of the activists has and continues to be ending the H-2A visa program, and with it the opportunities for these farmworkers to make much more than they can at home. Washington has both the highest minimum wage for guest farmworkers and some of the best Covid-19 protections for farmworkers in the country, but the activists don’t want to let the facts get in the way of their stories.
Farmers like Gebbers and the vast majority of other farmers across the state are working exceptionally hard under challenging circumstances to protect their valuable workers, both domestic and guest. It is a sad commentary on the state of our state and the media that rather than drawing attention to the facts and the great work being done, officials and reporters alike are responding instead to the cynical attacks on farmers driven by financial motives.
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