L&I: Workers not protected from COVID
Gebbers Farms has been fined more than $2 million for failing to protect its employees from COVID-19, one of the highest worker-safety penalties in state history.
The Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), which issued the penalty, cited Gebbers for “24 egregious willful violations” and four “serious” violations. Three Gebbers workers died from COVID this summer and many others were sickened, according to L&I.
L&I opened an investigation on July 16 after receiving anonymous calls from Gebbers’ workers. The first caller said that someone at the housing camp had died from COVID-19 and that other workers “who shared the same cabin with the deceased were not tested for the virus and were then split up into different cabins with other migrant workers,” L&I said in a news release on Monday (Dec. 21).
The second caller said he feared that hundreds of workers at his camp were infected with COVID but that the farm owners did nothing to help the sick and left them in their cabins to die, L&I said.
L&I investigators found Gebbers had violated COVID safety protocols that restrict workers to 15-member cohorts in housing and during transportation to job sites.
During the inspection, investigators confirmed that a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died on July 8. But Gebbers Farms waited more than eight hours to report the death, violating the state’s reporting requirement for workplace-related fatalities, L&I said.
A second worker, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, collapsed and died on July 31. The cause of death for both workers was COVID-19, L&I said.
“Gebbers continually failed to comply, even after the first worker died and our repeated presence at the farm, clearly demonstrating a lack of regard for worker safety and health,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director of L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Order to comply
When it launched the investigation in July, L&I issued an Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint to Gebbers Farms, requiring immediate compliance with COVID safety and health protocols for temporary worker housing.
L&I investigators ordered Gebbers to follow protocols that limit worker housing units to a maximum of 15 people, who must live, work, eat and travel together. The workers can’t share these facilities with other cohorts.
The rules restrict the use of bunk beds, mandating spacing between beds to ensure that people sleep head-to-toe so that no individuals’ heads are within 6 feet while they’re sleeping. In groups larger than 15, people can’t use the top bunk.
Investigators found hundreds of workers were sleeping in bunk beds, using both the top and bottom bunks. The workers had not been instructed to remain in cohort groups, L&I said.
Gebbers was also cited for transporting workers to the fields in full busloads. The L&I investigators found that the company bused 42 workers at a time, significantly exceeding the 15-member cohort, which increased their potential exposure to the virus because of the length of each trip, L&I said. The buses had a seating capacity of 42 people, which meant Gebbers also wasn’t employing the alternative of maintaining at least 6 feet between passengers, according to the L&I citation issued on Dec. 18.
Investigators made unannounced daily visits at the housing camps from July 16 through July 28 to ensure compliance. Gebbers didn’t come into compliance until July 28, said Tim Church, assistant director for L&I’s Web and Communication Services. The 24 citations are for 12 days of non-compliance for both the housing and travel violations.
“Gebbers made it very apparent to investigators they had no intention of following the rules as written regarding temporary agricultural worker housing and transportation,” L&I Director Joel Sacks said.
L&I also investigated the death of a third Gebbers employee from COVID. In that case, investigators found it was less clear where the person had been exposed to COVID, Church said.
In August, when public health officials became alarmed by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the food and agriculture industry, the state secretary of health ordered the testing of all workers at Gebbers Farms and at other growers with an infection rate of 10% or more.
Results of the testing of more than 3,100 Gebbers Farms employees released by Okanogan County Public Health found a positivity rate of 0.7%, lower than in the community at large, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said in October.
Jones said this week that she hadn’t seen the L&I citation and notice of penalty. But this summer, she said she had worked closely with Gebbers Farms to ensure safe working conditions and accommodations. At the time, she said she was confident that the company had instituted effective procedures. 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.
There were 2,700 H-2A workers potentially exposed to COVID-19 in temporary worker housing at nine camps, according to the L&I citation. The H-2A program covers temporary agricultural workers.
L&I assessed a penalty of $84,000 for each of the 24 violations. The farm was also cited for four other “serious” violations — not reporting the fatality within eight hours, no barriers in the group kitchen, and no hand-washing stations or toilet paper at two of four portable toilets, according to the citation. The total penalty levied against Gebbers Farms was $2,038,200.
L&I classifies violations as “general,” “serious,” and “egregious.” Some are also classified as “willful,” meaning the employer knew or should have known it was not in compliance, Church said.
The $2-million penalty comes seven weeks after L&I fined Gebbers more than $13,000 for two violations described as “serious” after a separate investigation launched in May. One was for not ensuring adequate distance between workers on the top bunks of beds. The other was for not installing physical barriers in kitchens and bathrooms to separate cooking stations and sinks. Gebbers Farms has appealed that penalty, Church said. The company also has the right to appeal the new penalty.
Gebbers has orchards in Okanogan and Chelan counties. The family-owned company is the largest cherry producer in the world, according to the company.
Gebbers Farms didn’t respond to a request for information.