Washington tree fruit grower Gebbers Farms, where two workers died last summer of COVID-19, has been fined more than $2 million for breaking coronavirus-related housing and transportation rules.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries announced the penalty Monday, claiming the farm defied the regulations and committed more than two dozen 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 said in statement.
Gebbers spokeswoman Amy Philpott said Sacks’ comment was “extremely concerning” and “untrue.”
“We explicitly said we would come into compliance as quickly as we could,” she said. “We strongly disagree with the agency on this matter.”
Philpott said the farm was considering whether to appeal the fine.
A 37-year-old farmworker from Mexico died July 8, and a 63-year-old farmworker from Jamaica died July 31 of COVID-19. Both were in the country on H-2A visas and lived in company housing.
According to L&I, the farm improperly housed and transported workers, potentially exposing 2,700 H-2A workers to the coronavirus.
In September, Health Secretary John Wiesman ordered more than 3,000 Gebbers employees to be tested for COVID-19. Less than 1% of the workforce tested positive, a low rate compared to the general population of Okanogan County.
The farm cited the low rate to buttress its argument that it sought to protect workers by consulting with an infectious disease specialist. The farm’s safety plan relied on isolating workers in groups of 42, rather than the state standard of 15.
“The number (15) is not some magical number,” Philpott said.
Gebbers’ alternative plan ran afoul of state regulators as early as May. An H-2A worker complained that he was quarantined without access to water to drink or wash with.
L&I initiated an investigation May 28 and fined the farm $13,200 for violations related to the use of bunk beds and not having barriers in kitchens and lavatories.
L&I started another investigation in July after anonymous calls from workers. The first caller said someone had died of COVID-19 and that workers he lived with were not tested and sent to different cabins, according to an L&I.
A second caller said he feared hundreds of workers were infected, including himself, and that he was worried he would die. The caller said the sick were not being treated, according to L&I.
L&I ordered Gebbers on July 22 to come into compliance with state standards. Agency investigators returned unannounced daily to see whether the farm complied.
Gebbers racked up its large fine over a 12-day period, July 16-27.
On each day, a bus with a capacity of 42 passengers took 42 farmworkers to and from orchards. The workers were not 6 feet apart, according to L&I. The farm incurred an $84,000 fine for every day.
Over the same 12 days, the farm violated rules by housing workers in bunk beds, according to L&I. The penalty for the housing violation was also $84,000 a day.
Lesser violations rounded out the fine. L&I said the company didn’t keep toilet paper or have hand-washing stations in every field bathroom, and didn’t have physical barriers in a community kitchen.
The farm also was fined $7,200 for not reporting the first worker’s death to L&I within eight hours. The worker died at a hospital, and the farm didn’t know of his death until several days later, Philpott said.