County continues to work closely with ag firm
The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has fined Gebbers Farms $13,200 for violations of regulations intended to protect employees in temporary worker housing from COVID-19.
The citation, issued Nov. 4, listed two violations described as “serious.” In one, L&I found that Gebbers Farms didn’t ensure the adequate distance between workers assigned to the top bunks of two-tier bunk beds. In the other violation, L&I said the company hadn’t installed physical barriers in kitchens to separate 20 food-preparation and cooking stations, nor in bathrooms to separate 25 sinks. Each violation carries a penalty of $6,600.
The citation says that these lapses potentially exposed 280 H-2A workers to COVID-19, posing a risk of permanently disabling illness or death. The H-2A program covers temporary agricultural workers.
Other investigations of Gebbers Farms are still underway, according to Tim Church, director of communications for L&I.
One investigation was opened in May after a complaint that a Gebbers worker was sent to quarantine but didn’t have access to water for drinking or washing, Church said. That investigation is still in progress.
Other investigations were opened in July to see if there were safety violations at two worker camps that may have contributed to the death of an employee from COVID, Church said. An investigation connected with the deaths of three Gebbers workers from COVID-19 is still ongoing, he said.
The July investigations looked at two camps, each housing 140 workers. Among the allegations L&I was investigating was the use of bunk beds, Church said. Gebbers also operates several other housing sites for its workers.
The state’s emergency rules 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, Church said.
If there is no family cohort, residents can use only the bottom bunk bed. The rule includes specific guidelines for distance between beds to ensure that people sleep head to toe so that no individuals’ heads are within 6 feet while they’re sleeping.
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.
Violations around state
The investigation of Gebbers Farms was one of 384 agricultural workplace safety-and-health inspections L&I has conducted so far this year. The agency found violations for health and safety concerns in 130 of those investigations, including noncompliance with state COVID-19 rules. Since many inspections are still underway, that number is expected to rise in the coming weeks, L&I said.
Of the more than 20 citations at agriculture businesses for serious COVID-19 violations, 10 involved temporary worker housing. The others were connected with various issues, including a lack of physical distancing.
The Gebbers Farms penalty was the second-highest issued by L&I. The top penalties ranged from $13,500 to $3,300.
Gebbers brings in about 3,000 people each year to help with the growing season, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said this summer.
Jones said she worked closely with Gebbers Farms since the company contacted her in February about how to ensure safe working conditions and accommodations for their workers. She said she was confident that Gebbers had instituted effective procedures.
A rash of COVID infections among farmworkers throughout the state — and the three deaths of Gebbers workers — prompted the state’s secretary of health to order coronavirus testing for all employees at Gebbers Farms and at any growers with an infection rate of 10% or more.
The tests, done in August and September, found a lower rate of infection among Gebbers workers than in the general public in Okanogan County, Jones said.
At the end of the harvest, the Washington Department of Health provided free COVID-19 testing for farmworkers, both those who live here year-round and those who were preparing to depart for the season. Tests were given in Okanogan County two weeks ago.
Gebbers Farms has 15 business days to appeal the violations. The company is required to post the notices where employees will see them.
Gebbers has orchards in Okanogan and Chelan counties. The family-owned company is the largest cherry producer in the world, according to the company.