Naches fruit packing workers strike, demand hazard pay due to COVID-19 concerns

NACHES, Wash. — More than 50 workers at a Naches fruit packing warehouse went on strike Thursday after they say their employers failed to address their concerns about COVID-19.

Allan Brothers Fruit employees told KAPP-KVEW access to hand washing stations and hand sanitizer is limited throughout the plant and that rules requiring employees to wear masks and remain six feet apart are not being consistently followed or enforced.

KAPP-KVEW contacted officials at Allan Brothers Fruit via phone multiple times on Thursday to ask for comment on this story, but received no response.

“Today, they said that they were going to give us face protection,” employee Jennifer Garton said. “But because we went on strike, [they said] that they weren’t able to provide that to us today.”

Garton works as a Quality Control in the shipping dock at Allan Brothers Fruit. She’s one of several workers KAPP-KVEW spoke to regarding the strike and safety concerns.

“Where I work, they haven’t been cleaning at all like they said they were going to,” Garton said. “Now we’re completely out of hand sanitizer and there’s no sinks at the shipping dock.”

Employees received a letter Monday from Allan Brothers Fruit — on company letterhead — with the subject line, “Notice of Workplace Exposure to a Communicable Disease.”

The notice said six more employees had tested positive that day for COVID-19 — for a total of 12 employees infected overall — and advised the production department that they may have been exposed to the virus, adding that the infected employees had last been at work between April 21 and May 1.

Garton said the first reports of someone at the company coming into contact with the virus happened about three weeks ago. She said an employee was required to leave work and quarantine for a week after their spouse was potentially exposed at a local nursing home.

Soon after, Garton said an employee had a family member test positive for COVID-19, followed by another employee testing positive and then another.

“It took a good couple weeks before they said anything to us,” Garton said. “They had a big meeting with us and told us someone inside had contracted it and this was two weeks after that.”

Garton said the meeting happened on a Friday and employees were allowed to leave early, with the promise that the facility would be deep-cleaned over the weekend and ready for their return on Monday.

She said while management initially would meet with employees about potential exposure, that hasn’t happened with the last group of cases reported in the notice given out earlier this week.

“We feel like we’re just being told part of the story and not the whole story,” Garton said.

The notice provided to employees May 4 also lists measures the company is taking to ensure employee safety, including, “increased sanitation and disinfection of employee work areas and shared common areas, increased handwashing training and awareness [and] social distancing training and enforcement.”

“Allan Bros., Inc is performing internal deep cleaning daily to disinfect all shared work areas as of April 28, 2020 as recommended by the CDC,” the notice said.

However, employees on strike said they haven’t seen significant cleaning measures taken and that the rules in place regarding social distancing and face masks are not being enforced.

“They’re not closing down to clean,” Garton said. “They’re not doing the things that they say they’re doing on paper.”

Workers said the company has done some things to try to prevent the spread, including putting Xs on where they need to stand in line and sit at lunch in order to be six feet apart. They’ve created separate lunchrooms for different departments and have provided free lunch to all employees this week.

Employees are asked to wear masks, but they’re not provided to them. With the type of work many employees do in packing and sorting, those workers said it’s hard to keep to those standards.

“The way we work, we can’t just be six feet apart from each other,” one line worker said. “They try … but it’s impossible in our line of work.”

Another employee on strike, Stefani, expressed concern about working on the line.

“We’re always next to each other, we’re closer than anyone else,” Stefani said. “We’re the ones that are pretty much shoulder to shoulder.”

Stefani said at one point, she believes she was working in close contact with another worker who’s since tested positive for the virus.

“For all I know, I could have brought it home,” Stefani said.

KAPP-KVEW spoke to another worker who said she’s concerned about her possible exposure to COVID-19.

“We really haven’t received the protection we should to be working on the lines,” the worker said. “We’ve been exposed to numerous people.”

She said she started feeling sick Friday with a fever and difficulty breathing. While she was feeling better Sunday, she let her supervisors know, just in case.

“I wanted to let them know because if it was the virus, I wanted the people I work with to know about it so they could take precautions at home,” the worker said. “A lot of them have elderly people at home, others have children under the age of 2, newborns even.”

However, she said her supervisors didn’t pass that information on to her coworkers.

“No one even knew that I was sick,” the worker said.

Her supervisors reportedly told her she had to be tested for COVID-19 and could not return to work until the results of the test came back.

She said she went to get tested Monday and without having medical insurance, it cost her upwards of $100.

“I asked them if I was going to get paid and they said … if I test positive, I will; if I test negative, I won’t,” the worker said. “So I don’t know  where I stand right now.”

Additionally, the worker said her spouse, who also works at the company, was required to stay home with her and will not be paid for that time regardless of her test results, which should be available Friday.

“I don’t think anyone’s feeling so comfortable, coming into work like this,” the worker said.

Workers have reportedly been told they can stay home without pay or take their vacation days if they’re worried about exposure at work, but say that’s not an option for many employees who live paycheck to paycheck and really need that money.

Garton said after more than a month of bringing their concerns to supervisors and asking to be heard, a group of workers decided to take action.

“I don’t feel safe and that’s why I decided to strike,” Garton said. “Because I just feel like they’re not taking the extra precautions that they say they are.”

Fifty-one employees across the Naches plant decided to strike Monday, standing in front of the main building, Garton said. She said managers told them they’d be paid for the day and offered to let them go home, but no one left.

“Nobody wants to leave because we want to make sure that we make a point,” Garton said.

Workers have presented their employers with a petition, signed by 54 employees, asking to receive hazard pay for the work they are doing during the pandemic.

“We’re afraid that we’re gonna lose our jobs,” Garton said.  “But we feel like we need to say something.”

Officials reportedly told employees they’ll make their decision early next week, but workers say they’ll continue to strike every day until their demands are met.

“We’re gonna have to wait and if this keeps going on, if they don’t want to do anything?” Stefani said. “We’re just gonna keep at it.”