Farm company fined $2M after two workers die of COVID-19

Associated Press
A farmworker, considered an essential worker under the current COVID-19 guidelines, covers his face as he works at a flower farm in Santa Paula, Calif.

An agricultural company in Washington state where two workers died from COVID-19 was fined more than $2 million for repeatedly violating coronavirus virus safety procedures.

“It’s unacceptable to choose to ignore health and safety rules,” Joel Sacks, the director of state Department of Labor & Industries, told reporters Monday.

Labor & Industries launched an investigation in July after being contacted by an employee of Gebbers Farm Operations in Brewster, Washington. The employee said a worker had died of coronavirus, and that the migrant workers who shared a cabin with the deceased were not tested and then split into other cabins.

Authorities say they confirmed a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died July 8, and the death was not reported to state officials as required. A second worker, a 63-year-old from Jamaica, died July 31. Both workers died of COVID-19.

The state investigation led to Gebbers being cited for 24 “egregious willful violations” for unsafe sleeping arrangements and unsafe worker transportation.

The company was fined $2,038,200, which it can appeal.

In a statement Gebbers Farms said it disagreed with the findings by the state workerplace watchdog.

“There is nothing more important to Gebbers Farms than our workers’ health and safety, as evidenced by the fact that 99.3% of our entire workforce tested negative for the virus, which is better than county, state and national rates to date,” the company said.

Gebbers Farms said it worked with an infectious disease specialist early in the pandemic to develop a safe housing program that included social distancing, mandatory masks and using fans to improve airflow.

Investigators found that hundreds of workers were sleeping in bunk beds using both the top and bottom bunks and not being told to remain in “cohort groups” of workers who don’t mingle with other employees.

Under emergency rules put in place by the state due to COVID-19 temporary agricultural workers can use top and bottom bunks only if a farm separates workers into group shelters.

Those cohort groups of no more than 15 workers must live, work, eat and travel together. Authorities say the investigation also found that Gebbers was busing workers to job sites in groups that were larger than allowed.

“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,” Anne Soiza, assistant director for Labor & Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement.

The July investigation was the second recent one involving Gebbers. The state opened an investigation on May 28 after receiving a worker complaint.

That probe resulted in a $13,200 fine for not ensuring adequate social distancing, with employees using the top and bottom bunks while not using a cohort, and no barriers in the kitchen/cooking areas.