Agency says company violated COVID-19 requirements
BREWSTER – Gebbers Farms is among more than 20 Washington agriculture businesses cited by the state Department of Labor and Industries for serious violations of COVID-19 safety and health requirements so far this year.
The Brewster company was fined $13,200 for shelter group workers interacting with members of other shelter groups and no barriers in the kitchen/cooking areas, the department announced Nov. 12.
“There is nothing more important to Gebbers Farms than providing a safe environment for its workers, as demonstrated when 99.3 percent of our workers tested negative for the coronavirus,” said company spokeswoman Amy Philpott. “The farm worked with an infectious disease expert to develop COVID-19 prevention measures that provide a safe workplace, and in its appeal, the farm will ask that these efforts be recognized.”
L&I conducted 384 agricultural workplace safety and health inspections so far this year statewide to help make sure farmworkers are safe on the job, according to the department.
Violations for various health and safety concerns were found during 130 of those inspections. They included non-compliance with state rules related to COVID-19.
Numerous inspections are still underway, so that number is expected to rise in the coming weeks, said department officials.
Of the more than 20 agriculture businesses cited for serious violations of COVID-19 safety and health requirements so far this year, 10 involved temporary worker housing while the others were related to multiple issues, including social distancing.
The fine against Gebbers Farms was among the largest levied by the state. An investigation into worker fatalities from COVID-19 has not yet been completed, the department said.
Two workers, Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon of Mexico and Earl Edwards, 63, Jamaica, died of the disease this summer.
Others with large fines include King Fuji Ranch Inc., Mattawa, $13,500 for shelter group workers interacting with members of other shelter groups and not social distancing; Evans Fruit Co. Inc., Sunnyside, Cowiche and Tieton, $6,600 following inspections in three locations that found employees were not wearing face masks, taking temperatures or social distancing; Agrilabor, Benton City, $5,400 for violations including beds not placed six feet apart; 7Point Holdings LLC operating as Northwest Cannabis Solutions, Elma, $3,300 for employees not wearing masks or social distancing.
“Our country relies on agriculture workers to grow and harvest food for our tables. We’re doing everything possible to make sure they are safe on the job,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks.
So far in 2020, L&I has conducted nearly 3,600 inspections and approximately 1,600 consultations.
Okanogan County’s COVID-19 incidence rate in late July and, particularly, in Brewster, prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to visit that town Aug. 13.
Inslee met with county health officials, mayors, state 12th District Reps. Keith Goehner and Mike Steele, Colville Business Council Chairman Rodney Cawston, farmworker advocates and agricultural leaders, including Gebbers Farms President Cass Gebbers.
Gebbers Farms subsequently tested its workers.
The company, in a prepared statement in August, said as an employer the company is committed to doing everything it can to minimize risk, “but we do not and cannot control what workers do in their own time.
“We use public health messages to educate workers on h ow to minimize the risk of transmission at work, in company-provided housing and while away from work. We repeatedly encourage workers to wear masks, practice good hand hygiene and social distance at all times, not just while at work or at home.”
Gebbers Farms said employees who exhibit symptoms or test positive are moved to an isolation facility, where they are provided food and medical care. The company’s safety officers check on them, take temperatures and oxygen levels, and offer doctor visits.
Employees receive accrued sick pay and can apply for benefits under the state paid family medical leave program, the company said. Assistance in applying is available.
In February, as the pandemic was ramping up, the company began working with Okanogan County Public Health in preparation for the virus showing up in Okanogan County.
“They have worked with us,” said Lauri Jones, Okanogan County Public Health community health director. “They were the first employer who met with the county, back in February, on protocols and so on.”
Gebbers Farms said it began distributing educational materials to employees at the end of February. Materials were included with paychecks and posted on communal poster boards in various locations within the company.
When the state issued emergency rules concerning the disease and agriculture, the company hired an infectious disease specialist to review its COVID-19 protocols. Employees were divided into cohorts and separated, provided with personal protective equipment, monitored for symptoms, given daily temperature checks and provided with multi-lingual educational materials.
Gebbers Farms employs around 4,500 people, with about half being domestic workers and half guest workers from other countries, the company said. It had around 2,500 guest workers in August, but the company said numbers vary depending on the time of year.