Dec 22, 2020Gebbers Farms fined $2M for violating COVID-19 safety procedures
An investigation into the COVID-19 deaths of two workers at a central Washington farm has found dozens of safety and health violations.
As a result, the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has cited Gebbers Farm Operations, LP in Brewster and issued one of the largest workplace safety and health fines in state history, $2,038,200.
“This farm clearly understood the steps they were required to take to keep workers safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” L&I Director Joel Sacks said in a Dec. 21 news release.
“Gebbers made it very apparent to investigators they had no intention of following the rules as written regarding temporary agricultural worker housing and transportation,” said Sacks.
Investigation opened after COVID-19 complaints from workers
L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) opened an investigation July 16 after receiving anonymous calls from workers at Gebbers Farm. The first caller said someone at the camp had died from COVID-19, adding that the workers who shared the same cabin with the deceased were not tested for the virus and were then split up into different cabins with other migrant workers.
The second caller said he feared that hundreds of workers at his camp have COVID-19, including himself, and he worried he would die. He said the farm owners did nothing to help the sick and just left them in their cabins to die.
During the inspection, investigators confirmed a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died July 8; the death had not been reported to DOSH as required. Businesses must report any workplace-related fatality within eight hours.
A second worker, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, collapsed and died July 31. The cause of death for both workers was COVID-19.
Order issued to comply immediately
Early in the investigation, on July 22, L&I issued an Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint (OIR) to the farm, requiring immediate COVID-19 safety and health rule compliance.
Under state emergency rules for temporary agricultural worker housing, top and bottom bunks can only be used if a farm separates workers into group shelters known as cohorts. Those groups of no more than 15 workers must live, work, eat, use shower and cooking facilities, and travel separately from other workers.
Investigators confirmed hundreds of workers were sleeping in bunk beds, using both the top and bottom bunks, and were not instructed to remain in cohort groups. Gebbers was also busing workers to the fields in groups significantly larger than allowed, increasing potential exposure to the virus due to the length of each trip.
Investigators returned unannounced daily to ensure the eventual compliance with safety and health rules.
“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,” said Anne Soiza, L&I assistant director for DOSH.
In total, the investigation found 24 egregious willful violations — 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements and 12 for unsafe worker transportation. Each of these violations was assessed a penalty of $84,000. The farm was also cited for four other serious violations including not reporting the fatality.
May inspection also found violations
The July investigation was the second involving the farm in a matter of weeks. L&I opened an investigation on May 28 after receiving a worker complaint. That investigation resulted in a $13,200 fine issued to Gebbers 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.
During that investigation, L&I explained to Gebbers the details of the emergency temporary agricultural worker housing rules and the changes needed for the farm to be in compliance.
L&I said Gebbers has 15 days to appeal the violations and the $2,038,200 penalty. Money paid as a result of a citation goes into the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, helping workers and families of those who have died on the job.
Response from Gebbers Farms
In response, management at Gebbers say they “strongly disagree with the agency’s assessment.”
“Gebbers Farms collaborated with an infectious disease specialist early in the pandemic to develop a group-shelter program that put employees’ health, safety and well-being first,” Gebbers management stated. “Our group-shelter program had many of the same elements as the state’s rule, including social distancing, mandatory facial coverings, reducing maximum occupancy of common areas, and using exhaust fans to create extra airflow in living quarters. We had already established cohorts of 42 people before the state set a 15-person cohort. We consulted experts to develop our program and there is nothing magical about the number 15. Consider that the state recommended size for community group gathers is far fewer today than at any other time in the year and community cases are rising.”
Gebbers management also says it told L&I they would and did change their program to follow COVID-19 safety rules “as quickly as possible.”
“Finally, in spring and summer, testing was still difficult to obtain, CDC guidance and recommendations were frequently changing early in the pandemic, and like essential businesses everywhere, we were making corresponding operational changes as quickly as possible,” management stated. “While we disagree with the agency on this matter, we will always do everything we can to keep employees safe in the workplace.”