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Agricultural company fined for violating COVID-19 procedures after workers die

Agricultural company fined for violating COVID-19 procedures after workers die
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A Washington state agricultural company was fined more than $2 million on Monday for violating coronavirus procedures after two workers died from COVID-19 in July. 

An investigation into Gebbers Farm Operations conducted by the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) resulted in the department announcing the “largest workplace safety and health fines in state history,” according to a release. 

L&I’s probe found 24 “egregious willful violations,” including 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements and 12 for unsafe worker transportation. Each of those violations resulted in an $84,000 fine. 

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Gebbers Farm was also fined for four other “serious violations,” including its failure to report the death of a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico on July 8 to the state. Another employee, a 63-year-old man from Jamaica, also died of COVID-19 on July 31. 

"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 statement. 

"Gebbers made it very apparent to investigators they had no intention of following the rules as written regarding temporary agricultural worker housing and transportation," he added. 

The state agency launched an investigation into Gebbers Farm in July after receiving anonymous calls from workers reporting violations. 

L&I said the first caller informed the department of the first COVID-19 death and noted that employees who shared the same cabin with the person who died were not tested and then sent to different cabins with other workers. 

The second caller expressed his concern that he and hundreds of workers could have COVID-19, adding that farm owners did not assist those who were sick and “just left them in their cabins to die,” according to the release.

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The investigators determined that hundreds of employees slept in bunk beds using both bunks and were not assigned to “cohort groups” to keep interactions between workers to a minimum. 

The COVID-19 emergency rules say agricultural workers can use both bunks if the company divides employees into cohorts, which are supposed to consist of up to 15 workers who live, work, eat and travel together. But along with the sleeping arrangement violations, Gebbers Farm was found to have been busing employees in larger groups 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’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said in the release.

Gebbers Farm disputed the investigation’s conclusions in a statement obtained by The Associated Press, noting it enlisted an infectious disease specialist earlier in the pandemic to institute its plans for housing, social distancing, mandatory masks and fans for better airflow.

“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.

The agricultural company has 15 days to appeal the violations and the fine, which if paid will go to the employees’ compensation supplemental pension fund for workers and families of workers who died while working.

L&I also noted that Gebbers Farm had to pay a $13,200 fine after a May investigation determined the company’s practices did not ensure social distancing in sleeping arrangements and in cooking areas.