Migrant workers leave WA farms, risking poverty instead of coronavirus

Worried about a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions, visiting workers say they are prioritizing their lives in the midst of the pandemic.

From left, Juan Carlos and Jose, photographed with WhatsApp video conferencing from their hometowns in Mexico. Both workers left their jobs at Gebbers Farm after a COVID-19 outbreak hit the farm and killed two fellow farmworkers. Juan Carlos and Jose both returned to their hometowns in Mexico and asked to stay anonymous to protect their future job security. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

As he has for the past seven years, a 47-year-old Jamaican farmworker named William recently traveled to the small Washington state town of Brewster to pick and pack fruit. 

This summer, however, was different. By the time the farmworker started working at Gebbers Farm, one of the biggest apple and cherry producers in the Pacific Northwest, the state was in an emergency resulting from the rapid spreading of COVID-19. 

The death of two fellow farmers from complications of the virus — Earl Edwards of Jamaica and Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon of Mexico — and what he believed was the overall lack of safety precautions at Gebbers Farm persuaded William to leave the United States in August after only a couple of months. Normally, he would have stayed through to November. Instead, he asked his sister, Shellie-Ann Kerns, who lives five hours away on the small Bunkhouse Acres farm in the Middle Satsop Valley for help in purchasing an airplane ticket back home. 

“It was a huge sacrifice,” she said of William's early departure. He asked that his real name not be used for this story out of fear of retribution. “He needs that money to send his kids back to school.” Kerns said her brother stopped at Walmart to buy shoes for his children before heading to the airport, but couldn’t afford to buy everything he needed.

Now back in Jamaica, William continues to feel the impact his lost income has had on him and the five sons — ages 6 to 20 — he helps to support.

“I need the money, but I’m not going to risk it,” he said, adding that he financially supports himself now by working as a farmer in his home country, growing yams, bananas, sweet peppers and ginger. 

Although most migrant workers in Washington state hail from Mexico and Guatemala, hundreds of Jamaican farmworkers are also part of the federal H-2A program, which enables foreign workers to temporarily work on America’s farmlands.

Launched in 1952 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the H-2A program was meant to help solve what industry leaders described as a domestic labor shortage in agriculture. In Washington state, one of the nation’s top destinations for H-2A workers, growers requested more than 26,000 foreign workers last year. There were a number of growers, however, who canceled their contracts this year, in part due to concerns over the coronavirus and an inability to practice social distancing, resulting in almost 3,000 fewer worker applications, said Norma Chavez of the state Employment Security Department. 

Often criticized for leaving workers vulnerable because of their distance from loved ones, the farmworker program has also served as an economic lifeline for thousands of migrants each year. It has provided an alternative to illegal entry into the U.S. and the low-wage jobs that many undocumented immigrants work at without health and unemployment insurance. Workers in Washington and Oregon are paid $15.83 an hour wage and are provided housing, transportation and other benefits. 

It was a choice between work and life, so we chose life. 
— Juan Carlos

But farmworker union leaders say the death of colleagues this year has propelled more than 12 workers at Gebbers Farm to give up on America’s promise of a better life. A domestic worker at Gebbers Farm, Francisco Montiel, also died from COVID complications last month.  

“They didn't deal with it. They never managed it properly,” William said of officials at Gebbers Farm and their handling of the virus. “Those guys, they show no respect for you.”

The company, meanwhile, says it has taken precautions to help keep workers safe, including more testing, quarantining workers upon arrival and not clearing them to work with others until they are determined to not have the virus.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a nonprofit assisting agricultural employers, said both employers and employees were forced to learn quickly how to best mitigate the risks of contracting the virus while tending a farm. 

“They just didn’t understand how COVID-19 worked,” Gempler said of newly arrived farmers. He explained that foreign H-2A workers make up only about 15% of farm labor in the state. 

We decided to leave before anything else worse happened.
— Jose

Juan Carlos, a Mexican farmworker, has worked in American fields for approximately a decade. But after the pandemic, he isn’t certain how or exactly when he’ll return.  

“I left because the company was allowing us to die alone,” he said in a recent interview in Spanish from his hometown of Tolimán, in the state of Querétaro in central Mexico. That's the same place Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, the Mexican worker who died, once lived.   

Juan Carlos caught the virus, too. He had trouble breathing, a high fever, body aches and diarrhea. He said he wasn’t sure he was going to survive the illness. Still, he kept working, in part because he was afraid he would be fired, but also because he was scared he would be sent to the isolation camp and left for dead. 

After his colleague died, however, Juan Carlos chose to leave Gebbers Farm altogether. 

“Vamanos” — “let’s go” — Juan Carlos told both himself and other workers. “We lost all our motivation for pushing ahead and working,” he said. 

Juan Carlos said he and others realized it “was a choice between work and life, so we chose life.”

“We didn’t care about breaking the contract,” he said, referring to workers’ contracts with Gebbers Farm. “We cared about our health and family.”

He bought an airplane ticket home, where he has reunited with his wife and two children. Juan Carlos said without the money he typically earns in the U.S., he won’t be able to finish the house he is building for his family. The family also has medical debts to pay.  

“I find the situation here in Mexico very difficult,” he said, noting that at home he makes less than $100 a week selling tortillas. A farmworker picking cherries, meanwhile, can make approximately $4,000 a month in the U.S. 

Still, Juan Carlos, 30, thought it was important to leave Gebbers not only for safety reasons, but on principle. 

“I want the company to realize that workers aren’t going to stand to be treated this way,” he said. “If we had received the medical attention that we deserved with COVID, we would have been grateful.”

Another farmworker, 31-year-old Jose, had heard before arriving in the U.S. that the virus was spreading in Washington state, just as it was in Mexico. But Jose wasn’t sure how dangerous it was to work in America. After all, he had not personally witnessed anyone get sick in Tolimán.  

Soon after arriving at Gebbers Farm, Jose suffered from a myriad of symptoms, but continued plucking fruit anyway. Jose said what really offended him and other workers was the lack of empathy the company showed and, in particular, its initial refusal to help transport the bodies or ashes of those who had died back to their home countries. 

“We decided to leave before anything else worse happened,” he said in Spanish. “We are disposable for them. That’s the way they make us feel.”

Farmworker Earl Edwards, seen here with his wife, Marcia, in 2011, died July 31, 2020, while in quarantine for suspected COVID-19. For the past decade, Edwards had done seasonal work at the Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County. (Edwards family)

Advocates say they warned the agricultural industry about the need to adopt new safety precautions early on in the pandemic, but that the state delayed issuing new rules until May. They also argue that the federally sponsored program was never that great to begin with and that the pandemic has only exposed the inequities already built into the system. 

“It was already bad,” said Rosalinda Guillen, a member of a Washington state advisory committee on agriculture and director of Community to Community, a farmworker organizing and advocacy group in Whatcom County. “The pandemic hit, and this bad system continued to function like business as usual.”

“We call this program a quasi slave labor program,” she continued. “You don’t get chased by Homeland Security, but you’re locked up.”

She said Mexicans in the United States want to change the program, either eliminating it or making it “fair and just.”

All of our workers are essential to us. Quite frankly, we couldn’t do what we do without them, and we are working hard to protect them.
— Amy Philpott, spokeswoman for Gebbers Farm

Workers say part of what drove them away from Gebbers Farm was the isolation camp for those who fell ill. They watched as colleagues were sent to a remote area with no cellphone reception and, in the worst-case scenario, never returned. 

They got here and “just started seeing people getting sick left and right,” said Victoria Ruddy, Pacific Northwest regional director of the United Farm Workers, one of the nation’s largest farmworker unions. 

“I think it really freaked them out. If they got sick and got sent to those camps they might die there, too, or they might not be able to get help," Ruddy said.

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Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon was employed at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County for a decade as a seasonal guest worker. He died July 8, 2020, from COVID-19. (Ernesto Dimas)

Workers said colleagues at Gebbers Farm were not always tested for COVID-19 or given access to a doctor. In August, Washington state’s Secretary of Health John Wiesman ordered Gebbers Farms, which employs some 4,500 men and women, to test all of its labor force. The order to test employees noted that hundreds of them had already been found to be positive for the virus or showed symptoms of it. It also pointed out that the Department of Labor and Industries had been forced to intervene because the farm was not following safety rules, allowing too large of a group of people to live together while still using bunk beds. Of the more than 3,000 workers tested, there were 22 positive cases, which is a positivity rate below 1%.

Agricultural employers must now begin testing whenever there are more than nine cases among workers within a 14-day period, or the virus attack rate equals 10% of the people they employ.

In a statement, Gebbers Farm spokeswoman Amy Philpott said: “Preventive measures have been effective at protecting workers, though the family-owned company continues to mourn the loss of three team members earlier this summer.” Philpott also said now that more testing is available, every worker is quarantined upon arrival and cleared for work only after they are determined to not have the virus.

Contrary to workers’ testimony, Philpott said those in quarantine have always been monitored and provided access to medical care.

“From the very beginning, Gebbers was taking proactive measures,” Philpott said in a recent interview. "All of our workers are essential to us. Quite frankly, we couldn’t do what we do without them, and we are working hard to protect them.”

“We will not stop doing everything we can to protect our workers until this threat is gone,” she said.

An H-2A guest worker prunes Fuji apple trees in an orchard near Wapato, Yakima County. Launched in 1952 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the H-2A visa program allows foreign workers to enter the US for seasonal farm work. Washington received about 23,000 foreign worker applications for 2020, almost 3,000 fewer than last year. (Andy Sawyer/AP)

Still, some argue that the new agricultural safety guidelines are not rigorous enough. 

Community to Community's Guillen said the current safety rules allow workers to live together in groups of up to 15 people, which she and other advocates vehemently oppose. The total number of workers also remains high, Guillen said, and employers have not taken sufficient steps to increase social distancing, even if it leads to reduced production. 

Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, sued the state Department of Labor and Industries and the Department of Health on behalf of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union based in Burlington in Skagit County over the new rules. Among the chief concerns are a lack of proper ventilation, especially now that wildfires burning throughout the region mean workers cannot safely open windows. 

In the complaint, Schmitt cited two University of Washington epidemiologists who acted as advisers to the state when the rules were first discussed. They recommended no more than two people per room or, “if individual rooms are impractical, the numbers of farmworkers per room should be reduced and beds should be separated by 6 feet.” Contrary to this advice, migrant workers are still allowed to sleep on bunk beds. 

The court documents note the Department of Health and Department of Labor and Industries were at one point opposed to bunk beds, but dropped their opposition when faced with the reality that adequate spacing of workers in existing housing would require finding alternative housing or cutting the workforce, the court documents read.

“We believe that the industry leaders used politics to pressure and influence state agencies,” Guillen said. “We kept seeing through this pandemic how racist regulatory systems are against Black and brown people.”

“We’re relegated to the margins,” she said.

The United Farm Workers' Ruddy said it’s the lack of enforcement with regard to the new rules that is the real issue. 

“I think what we really need now is for employers to step up and comply and when they don’t comply for there to be consequences,” she said.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Fruit Tree Association, which works with growers and packers, said he's worried about COVID-19 fatigue making it more difficult for employers to protect workers — whatever the rules might be.  

"We all know people who have gotten over it," DeVaney said, referring to workers and the pandemic. "You have very little control over how they might be putting themselves at risk outside of the workplace."  

Last week, the state Department of Labor and Industries and the Department of Health updated the emergency rules for agricultural workers living in temporary worker housing. Among the changes, agricultural employers must now ensure that twice a day a licensed health care provider visits each worker in isolation. Employers must also report within 24 hours to the Department of Labor and Industries whenever a worker is quarantined.

Tim Church of the Department of Labor and Industries said investigators from his office have visited Gebbers Farm several times and that the outcome of an investigation into the death of workers there is pending.

Advocates say even if an investigation finds wrongdoing, the financial penalties are not always severe enough. “This has just been a horrific kick in the gut for farmworker advocates,” Guillen said. “It was all about the profit.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.