Yakima fruit company hires workers’ teens during school shutdown, increases protective measures for employees

Mount Adams Fruit safety

YAKIMA, Wash. — A Yakima-based fruit company is going the extra mile to protect its approximately 350 packing warehouse workers from COVID-19 — and help their family members in the process.

“We are encouraging employees that are in that at-risk area to actually not work, which is a hard thing to do for a lot of our employees,” said Doug Gibson, Chief Operating Officer at Mount Adams Fruit.

To help out, Mount Adams Fruit is hiring its employees’ teenage children to come work for them, with some temporarily taking over their family member’s job and others coming to work alongside their parents.

“Our hope is if grandma, who is 60, 70 years old, is working as a sorter, she’s encouraged to not work,” Gibson said. “Then that job is available to someone else in her family that can bring that money home.”

The company has opened up positions to anyone 16 years old or older who is related to a current employee through a special work permit for minors; about 32 have been hired on so far, Gibson said.  They’re working in temporarily open positions or in new positions geared toward adding more food and employee safety checks.

“Ultimately, the parents really like it because they have a safe place for their kids to go,” Gibson said, adding that it’s also an educational opportunity. “Our hope is that we can have them come join us doing cherries in the summer.”

Gibson said the company has a responsibility to its growers to keep packaging fruit and to the general public to keep putting food in the grocery store.

“We take that seriously, so what we’re really trying to do is focus on how we can best accommodate both sides: keeping everyone employed … and making sure it’s a safe work environment,” Gibson said.

With administrative and office workers, Gibson said they’ve been able to come up with new ways for them to do their jobs remotely. He said one of his employees has a wife at home who falls in the at-risk category for the virus; he’s now working from home as a mechanic.

“We’ve been creative in how we frame some of these jobs to try to still provide value while giving people the opportunity to still take care of their families and their own health, too,” Gibson said.

However, those working on the packing and sorting lines for apples and pears can’t do their work from home. Instead, the company has implemented new safety measures to protect those employees still coming into the warehouse.

“It’s really difficult to change a packing line and the procedures that we need to do to make sure that we’re taking care of the employees the right way,” Gibson said.

Gibson said the lunch rooms have been expanded to allow workers to eat while social distancing effectively: they can now be six feet apart during their breaks.

“We have to monitor that to make sure people are adhering to the rules,” Gibson said. “It’s not in all of our natures to want to talk six feet away from each other.”

Mount Adams Fruit safety

Gibson said production has been slowed down to allow workers to be spaced further apart from each other.

In places where employees can’t be six feet away from each other, the company has put up barriers in between them.

The workplace is also being cleaned more frequently and hand sanitizer is available throughout the warehouse, Gibson said.

Mount Adams Fruit safety 2

For those at-risk employees who can’t do their work from home and do not have a high-school-age kid to come to work in their place, Gibson said the company is helping workers figure out how to get temporary unemployment.

“We’ve not laid anyone off,” Gibson said.

He said the company is supporting employees by giving them information about different programs that can help them.

“We’re not just passing out pamphlets,” Gibson said. “We’re taking time to have employee meetings and walk around daily to talk directly to people and make sure they understand all their options.”