$2 million to improve workers’ conditions
Gebbers Farms has agreed to spend more than $2 million to improve housing, safety, access to health care, and quality of life for their workers and their families.
The agreement came in a settlement with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), which imposed more than $2 million in penalties on Gebbers Farms last year for “egregious willful” violations of the state’s emergency COVID procedures for farmworkers. The settlement was announced on Aug. 4.
An L&I investigation launched last year found two Gebbers workers died from COVID last July while living and working on the farm. Inspectors said Gebbers Farms wasn’t following emergency requirements for temporary worker housing, which restricted the use of bunk beds except for workers treated as a family unit or cohort who lived, worked, ate and traveled together.
Under the settlement, Gebbers Farms agreed to make $1.4 million in capital improvements to temporary worker housing, and to donate $513,000 to local health care facilities and community services to aid workers and their families. The company will also hire a full-time safety officer.
“Gebbers Farms has always cared deeply about the well-being and safety of its workers,” Gebbers Farms CEO Cass Gebbers said in a statement. “Each year, Gebbers Farms makes improvements to its temporary housing facilities to enhance the safety and comfort of its workers. This mediation agreement will result in even more improvements, and it will benefit the community at large through the farm’s donations to community charities and nonprofits.”
Gebbers Farms will make worker accommodations including:
• Building three new units with new amenities to replace a housing camp built in the 1970s. The old camp has separate sleeping, cooking and toilet facilities and consistently requires corrective actions to meet minimum licensing requirements, according to L&I.
• Installing air conditioners and upgrading electrical wiring to provide washing machines and dryers for workers.
• Purchasing new mattresses for temporary worker housing.
• Installing signs so emergency responders can locate housing units.
• Building and maintaining recreation areas, including a soccer field, picnic tables and benches.
• Building a cell tower so workers have reliable communication with family.
The company will donate $513,000 to area hospitals, health care centers, emergency medical services, day care and recreational centers to improve access to health care for workers and their families.
Gebbers Farms has also committed to spending $150,000 to hire a full-time safety officer for three years. The officer will oversee and supervise worker safety and health, including training and supervising the staff who develop, implement and enforce the company’s safety program.
In exchange for these actions — which exceed all existing state regulatory requirements — the fines will be reduced to $10,000, L&I said.
“This settlement means the company will put significant money where it will help the most: improving health, safety and quality of life for farmworkers and their families,” L&I Director Joel Sacks said. “This is a better result for workers than we could have achieved through litigation.”
Gebbers has orchards in Okanogan and Chelan counties. The family-owned company is the largest cherry producer in the world, according to the company.
Study: COVID-19 cases higher among Gebbers warehouse workers, community residents
A study of a COVID outbreak among workers at Gebbers Farms from May through August 2020 found a higher incidence of disease among warehouse workers than orchard workers, and a higher incidence among workers who live in the community than in farmworker housing provided by the company.
The study, done by researchers with the Washington Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was published April 30, 2021, in the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”
In 2020, Gebbers employed 4,955 people — 3,708 orchard employees and 1,247 warehouse employees (who include forklift operators and office staff).
Researchers compared COVID cases in orchard workers and those in warehouse jobs, which were typically indoors and in close quarters. They obtained test results and reports of COVID symptoms for a higher proportion of orchard workers (3,013, or 81%) than warehouse workers (726, or 58%).
For orchard workers, 178 got COVID, an infection rate of 6%, although another 18 had COVID symptoms. For warehouse workers, 170 got COVID, or 23%, with the highest infection rate among those who worked packing fruit (28%), which involves the closest quarters and largest groups of employees.
Most orchard workers (79%) lived in housing provided by Gebbers Farms; the rest lived in the community. Just 4% of the orchard workers infected with COVID lived in company housing, whereas 12% of those who got sick lived in the community. All the warehouse employees lived in the community.
During the same time period, the COVID incidence rate in Okanogan County was 2%, meaning that there were more infections among Gebbers workers than in the overall community. The study didn’t identify the communities where workers lived.
The researchers pointed to several factors that could affect the study results. They didn’t have details about the living situation of Gebbers workers who resided in the community. But in other regions, farmworkers living in a community were more likely to live in larger households with multiple adults working outside the home, which could increase the risk of infection, the researchers said.
The difference in the COVID incidence rate could be explained by successful infection-prevention efforts at farmworker housing facilities, or by different behaviors of employees in temporary housing and those in the community. Alternatively, employees in temporary housing might be less able or willing to get tested for COVID, the researchers said.
The study was also constrained by a lack of information about exposure of individuals to COVID, limited testing among asymptomatic people, and the possibility that some Gebbers employees got tested on their own and didn’t report the results to their employer, the researchers said.
Employee records didn’t include demographic information such as race, ethnicity or preferred language, according to the researchers.
The study authors recommend that employers work with public health authorities and community groups to decrease the risk of infection for farmworkers — in particular, for those who work indoors and can’t practice physical distancing.