County health working closely with company
The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has launched an investigation of two housing camps operated by Gebbers Farms after a complaint about possible non-compliance with emergency rules designed to protect workers in temporary housing from COVID-19.
L&I launched the investigation last week after receiving a complaint in conjunction with the death of a Gebbers employee from COVID earlier this month, according to Tim Church, director of communications for L&I. L&I opened the investigation to see if there are safety violations at the camps that may have been a contributing factor, Church said.
L&I inspectors visited the camps, John’s Farm Camps No. 1 and 2, a few times last week. Early indications suggest that the company wasn’t following emergency rules regarding the use of bunk beds in housing facilities, Church said. There are about 280 workers at the two camps, 140 at each location, he said. Gebbers has several other housing sites for their workers, he said.
The emergency rules are complex, but they allow farms to use bunk beds only when the residents are treated as a family unit or cohort, so that they live, work, eat and travel together. They also need to remain separated from other individuals to keep the virus from spreading in a group setting, Church said.
If there is no family cohort, residents can use only the bottom bunk bed, according to the state’s emergency rule and Guidance for Temporary Worker Housing during the pandemic issued by the state Department of Health (DOH). The rule includes specific guidelines for the distance between beds to ensure that people sleep head-to-toe.
L&I issued an Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint to Gebbers Farms on July 22. The order says the company “should strongly consider following the cohort provisions” for housing at all its locations.
L&I’s preliminary findings were only about bunk beds and don’t imply that there were any other possible rule violations, Church said.
Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said she’s been working closely with Gebbers Farms since the company contacted her in February about how to ensure safe working conditions and accommodations for its workers. Gebbers brings in about 3,000 people to help with the growing season and needs to keep them healthy to carry out the harvest, Jones said.
Jones said she’s confident that the company has instituted effective procedures, including sanitizing facilities and requiring masks in the workplace and transportation. The company set up different days for employees to pick up their paychecks to minimize the number of people gathering at any one time. “Gebbers has jumped through hoops to keep their workers safe,” Jones said.
Housing units can accommodate up to 15 individuals, according to the DOH guidance. If groups use the same dining facilities, they must be cleaned between each group. Employers can install barriers that extend from the floor to near the ceiling to separate beds. Barriers are also required between sinks.
Related family members can live in the same unit without physical distancing and can use bunk beds.
Employers need a system for regular health checks and daily temperature screening. If anyone in a cohort becomes sick, all members of the group must be tested or quarantined, per DOH rules.
Jones said she is in contact with Gebbers every other day, particularly as people have been tested for COVID or become infected. Gebbers has set up isolation camps for any employees who are sick and they are closely monitored, Jones said.
Gebbers provides educational materials in Spanish, Jones said. Despite the education campaign and requirements for workers, it’s hard to control what people do on their own time, she said.
L&I has an open investigation. The agency won’t provide any further information while the investigation is ongoing, Church said. Once the investigation is complete, L&I will notify Gebbers Farms. After that, the inspection can be released to the public.
L&I is required to complete an inspection within six months but the agency is doing its best to respond as quickly as possible, Church said. If L&I finds violations, a company can be cited and fined, but it’s rare to shut a company down, he said.
Gebbers did not respond to a request for information.