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.
The state Department of Labor & Industries said Monday it 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.
“It’s unacceptable to chose to ignore health and safety rules,” said Joel Sacks, director of Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
Gebbers Farms responded to the fines Monday saying this:
"We are deeply disappointed by the agency’s announcement. 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.
While we cannot comment on the specific violations because we are evaluating our options to appeal, we 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. 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. Considering that the state recommended size for community group gatherings is far fewer today than at any other time in the year, and community cases are rising. We said that we would (and we did) change our program as quickly as possible to follow the state rules.
We explicitly said that we would change our program to follow the rules as quickly as possible, but that for an operation this size, we needed time. Also, in spring and summer, testing was still difficult to obtain. CDC guidance and recommendations were frequently changing early in the pandemic. Like essential businesses everywhere, we were making corresponding operational changes as quickly as possible.
While we disagree with the agency, we will always do everything we can to keep employees safe in the workplace. COVID has taken a severe toll on communities, the state, and the country. We are deeply saddened by the loss of our team members and long-time workers who we considered family."