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Thursday, September 21, 2023
Sept. 21, 2023

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Employees at New Columbia Fruit Packers in Yakima raise concerns about working conditions


YAKIMA — More than a dozen workers packed Centro Chinampa on Thursday to share concerns about the working conditions at New Columbia Fruit Packers facility in Yakima.

Workers at the fruit packing company, formerly known as Frosty Packing or Jack Frost, said they sent a letter signed by more than 40 workers asking for changes in working conditions at the facility near Fruitvale Boulevard. Fair Work Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on improving working conditions, hosted the news conference.

The letter asks New Columbia to overhaul its sick leave policy and show workers more respect. Workers called for changes in supervisors’ treatment of workers. They said supervisors yelled at workers and treated some better than others.

“In all the places we have been, this isn’t unique,” said Javier López, who has worked at New Columbia and its predecessor, Frosty Packing, for 10 months.

“This is a moment to unite to make our voice heard so that they respect us,” he said in Spanish.

New Columbia Fruit Packers dates to October 2022, when Goldman Sachs Asset Management purchased Frosty Packing of Yakima and Columbia Fruit Packers of Wenatchee and merged them into the new company, which processes apples and cherries.

Frosty Packing was one of seven fruit production plants in Yakima at which workers went on strike in 2020 to demand COVID protections and hazard pay.

New Columbia Fruit Packers in Yakima did not comment as of press deadline.

Workers said the sick leave policy and issues with supervisors predate the merger. They said the sick leave policy allots workers 10 points and deducts half a point for any absence under two hours and a full point for an absence longer than two hours. As workers lose points, they are subject to verbal warnings, written warnings and possible dismissal.

Workers said they need more leave to attend medical appointments or take care of themselves or their children when sick. Several said they were unable to get sick leave, even when they had notes from their doctors.

Javier López said he suffers from a carcinoma cancer and cannot move quickly or carry heavy loads. He’s the only worker in his household, he said, so he has to hold a job. López said his sister suffers from a chronic illness, but he has not been able to get the time off to be with her during surgeries.

Another worker, who didn’t give her full name due to legal concerns, said she also had a chronic illness and had to come to work despite her doctor’s orders.

“I came to work with a really bad headache. My doctor had told me not to drive with that kind of pain,” she said in Spanish.

She is a single mother of six. She said she ran out of sick leave when caring for one of her children through two medical procedures.

“It’s unjust when they don’t listen when I’m sick or when my son is sick and they don’t believe people,” she said in Spanish. “There are many single mothers working there that have children and have a responsibility to their children.”

Workers also said supervisors intimidated workers by yelling at them and closely monitoring bathroom and water breaks. They said some workers were given preferential treatment when it came to the work they were assigned. Workers said these issues had existed for years.

Orlando López, who has worked at the plant for 10 months, said a company representative came from Wenatchee to discuss some changes, but that nothing happened. He added that many migrant workers were afraid to speak up, and he hoped that by coming together, they could see changes at New Columbia.

Organizers with the Fair Work Center hosted the press conference at Centro Chinampa. Angelina Lara, community engagement and base building educator for the Fair Work Center, said she has been assisting some of the workers for over a year.

Lara said she had worked in fruit packing plants and been involved in workers strikes in 2020. It was a personal issue for her, she added.

“I think it’s time things changed,” Lara said in Spanish.

She said the Fair Work Center wants an environment that’s better for workers’ physical and mental health. Lara did not comment on any future labor or legal action, but said she hopes New Columbia responds to the letter and listens to workers.

“We want to see them respond,” Lara said in Spanish. “We want to see them communicate.”