Community to Community Development
Uproar over a worker’s death figured in the Washington Department of Labor and Industries’ decision to levy a record fine against a Whatcom County blueberry farm for unrelated violations of employment standards, according to department records obtained by the Capital Press.
An L&I investigation found Sarbanand Farms blameless in Honesto Silva Ibarra’s death in August, but in a separate probe penalized the farm $149,800 for late meals and missed rest breaks in July.
A department manager had approved fining the farm $4,617, according to the records, but the penalty was revised upward by the assistant director of L&I’s Fraud Prevention and Labor Standards, Elizabeth Smith.
In justifying the fine, a department memo cited the large number of workers affected and the regularity of missed breaks and late meals. “In addition, this is a high-profile case with much publicity,” the memo stated.
L&I spokesman Tim Church agreed Friday that Ibarra’s death and the subsequent firing of concerned workers who went on strike made the case high-profile. But he disagreed that publicity was a factor in calculating the fine for violations that occurred before Ibarra fell ill.
“I don’t think we would say it played a factor. We would say it was part of the discussion of the larger event,” Church said. “We knew we would have to justify what we were doing in a public way.”
California brothers David and Kable Munger, who call their company the largest producer of fresh blueberries in North American, own Sarbanand, a farm in Sumas near the U.S.-Canada border.
L&I launched a high-profile safety investigation Aug. 9, three days after Ibarra, 28, died at a Seattle hospital. He had been taken by ambulance from the farm Aug. 2. Before Ibarra died, about 70 workers staged a one-day strike and were fired by Sarbanand.
Social justice activists accused farm managers of being indifferent to Ibarra’s health and callously firing other Mexican nationals who were worried about Ibarra.
The King County medical examiner said Ibarra died of natural causes, and L&I ruled the death was not workplace related. L&I also cleared Sarbanand of allegations that pesticides sickened workers.
The newly available documents, released in response to a records request by the Capital Press, pertain to an investigation into employment practices. L&I started the probe at the same time as the safety and pesticide investigations.
The agency concluded workers were served meals late or missed rest breaks 13 times on nine different days over two weeks in July. L&I had broad discretion in calculating Sarbanand’s fine. The options presented in agency records ranged from as little as $513 to more than $2.95 million.
L&I investigators reported that farm managers “openly shared information” and “made immediate corrections to avoid future” violations. The farm also had no previous violations to count against it.
The agency’s employment standards manager, David Johnson, created a note in October approving a $513 fine for each of the nine days for a total penalty of $4,617, according to agency records.
Records also indicate the department considered a $61,500 penalty. In the end, the department settled on what it announced in a press release was the largest fine it had ever levied for those types of violations.
L&I arrived at the penalty by picking the day on which the most workers — 583 — were affected. The number was reduced in half and multiplied by $513.
“We chose the middle path,” Church said.
Efforts to obtain comment from Sarbanand were unsuccessful.
L&I’s records on the employment standards investigation include copies of news accounts about Ibarra’s death, the strike and a class-action lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services and a Seattle law firm. None of the stories focused on rest breaks or late meals.
The lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges workers were underfed, overworked and illegally fired.
L&I’s files include numerous complaints from workers about the quality and quantity of food, and long lines that gave them little time to eat. Many workers also said they were disgusted by filthy restrooms.
L&I has filed the citation in Whatcom County District Court.