Virus hits food-processing sites hard
People of color more likely to get sick, and when infected, die
It is harvest time in the Hood River Valley, and orchardist Erin Roby is busy getting crews geared up for the eight-week picking season on her family’s 330 acres of pears. With the emergence of COVID-19, things look a lot different this year.
The number of pickers — 90 in a typical year — is down to 65. That’s due to new housing restrictions, which required her operation, Legacy Orchard Management, to reconfigure units to accommodate distancing requirements. This year, workers will operate in small teams that live, travel, eat and work together. Sanitizer and handwashing stations have been added in the housing units and in the field. And, armed with community-produced multi-media resources, orchard supervisors are engaged in a continuous process of educating workers and each other.
It’s all part of what has been a highly collaborative effort in the Columbia Gorge agricultural region to keep workers safe. Most of the region’s largest workplace outbreaks have taken place in rural areas. Food packing and agricultural worksites, where people work and live in proximity, have been hit hard, as have correctional facilities. And that disproportionately affects people of color, who are overrepresented in these settings. Oregonians who are Black, Latino or members of Native American communities are more likely to get sick, and when they’re infected, they’re more likely to die.
Roby’s workers, like many in the agricultural field, are mostly Hispanic. They tick off all the high-risk boxes for COVID-19: They live in close quarters and work in situations where handwashing and physical distancing are difficult.
Roby credits the collaborative work of many regional groups for helping agricultural businesses cope with the pandemic. Resources aimed at providing workers with information, including videos and printed material, have been produced by a host of community partners. Orchard supervisors, for example, have relayed concerns that workers may resist reporting illness for fear of losing their jobs. Resources developed by groups such as Hood River’s The Next Door Inc. give them the information they need to reassure workers that their jobs are protected.
And community leaders in rural Oregon are taking extra steps to include disproportionally affected communities in response and recovery strategies. The Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, for example, is using equity as a focus in the recovery.
“The pandemic has highlighted the cracks in our economy where some people fall through,” says Jessica Metta, MCEDD’s executive director. “As we work on recovery, building on the longtime success of partners like The Next Door, Inc. and their work with farm workers and Native American communities during the pandemic will help us rebuild a stronger economy for everyone.”
Doing business and keeping employees safe amidst a global pandemic takes a lot of effort, and Roby says it is an unprecedented group effort that offers hope for the future.
“Sometimes there is a little bit of a barrier between the community and agriculture,” she explains. “But all these community partners are coming together now.
“That is what has made the difference here. We have broken down that barrier. All of these different groups are providing resources for us to be successful and our workforce to be successful. It’s amazing.”