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Warehouse worker strikes spread across the valley, companies already losing money

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YAKIMA COUNTY -- Fruit packers across the valley are walking out of work, as it seems strikes among these essential workers are spreading like wildfire. This as the industry says it's doing all it can to protect workers as it deals with extremely tough times.

"We just, a lot of us walked out. This is more than half the warehouse," says one employee at Jack Frost Fruit in Yakima, Elias Orea.

Over 100 workers at both Matson Fruit Company in Selah and Jack Frost Fruit in Yakima walked out on the job today, joining workers across the valley like those at Allan Brothers Fruit who have already gone on strike.

They say they're calling for hazard pay and safer working conditions.

"We were just asking for a little. We're not asking for a lot. Something to say thank you because we're coming, risking our lives, risking our families," says Celia Uscanga.

When it comes to safety, local companies say that is their top priority, and that they've already made major changes.

"We believe that we're meeting and exceeding a lot of the safety requirements at this time," says a representative at Jack Frost, Brian Bruner.

Jordan Matson of Matson Fruit says in an email to Action News that in all of their operations throughout the state, they've had just three workers test positive for COVID-19, and three others who are presumed positive. He says they've met with someone at the Yakima Health District to see what more they can do to keep workers safe.

"We heard the lines are going real slow compared to when we were all in there so it's kind of getting an impact on them," says Orea.

As workers go on strike, what does it mean for the fruit that goes to the grocery store, or for this industry that's a huge part of our local economy? The strikes have certainly impacted production for a day.

Bruner says it's hard to say how badly strikes like this will impact the industry.

"How it's going to impact? I mean, I guess time will tell," says Bruner.

Mike Gempler with the Washington Growers League says the most important thing is making sure the workers have the confidence to go back to work, and understand what is expected of these companies, and what they're actually doing.

"Making everyone knowledgeable about what we need to do, and that we're doing it. That's what we need to focus on, not lost money," says Gempler. "We know we're going to lose money with the COVID crisis, that's just a given."

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The next few days may tell whether agreements are made between management and the workers and strikes end, or whether strikes spread further.

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