The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has slammed Gebbers Farm Operations with a more than $2.038 million fine over the deaths of two workers from COVID-19.

The fine, the second largest ever levied by the agency, is for health and safety violations found during an investigation into the deaths.

L&I officials say the fines largely result from 24 repeated and willful violations of state rules established earlier this year to help protect agricultural workers from the spread of COVID-19. Those rules limited the size of the groups that could sleep and eat together and how many could be seated in buses that took people to the orchards or other workplaces.

“Gebbers made it very apparent to investigators that they had no intention of following the rules as written,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks in a statement released Monday. 

Gebbers, based in north-central Washington’s Okanogan County, is one of the largest orchard companies in Washington, and a mainstay of the Okanogan County agricultural economy with a workforce of some 4,500 people.

The family-owned business, in a statement released Monday, disputed L&I’s findings, called the fines exorbitant and said they would be appealed.

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 “We are deeply disappointed by the agency’s announcement. … There is nothing more important to Gebbers Farms than our workers’ health and safety.”

L&I opened an initial investigation into Gebbers on May 28 and fined the company $13,200 for failing to keep workers socially distanced as required by state rules. Another investigation got underway July 16 after the agency received anonymous phone complaints from two Gebbers workers, including one who said there had been a worker death.

During an inspection, investigators confirmed that a 37-year-old worker had died July 8 from COVID-19. The worker came from Mexico under a temporary work visa.

By July 26, L&I had issued an unusual “order and notice of restraint,” telling the company to comply with the rules. Five days later — on July 31 — a second guest worker died from complications of the coronavirus.

The Seattle Times, in an earlier story, identified the two deceased workers as 37-year-old Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, of Mexico, and Earl Edwards, 63, of Jamaica. 

Three other temporary workers who cut short their employment with Gebbers described, in interviews with The Seattle Times, what they thought was a disturbing breakdown in oversight amid a growing outbreak of illness. They spoke of workers from their camp near Brewster going to work in the orchards even when they had signs of illness.  

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“You could hear people coughing everywhere,” said Ernesto Dimas, an 11-year Gebbers employee who quit in July due to concerns about COVID-19.

A Gebbers spokesperson, in late July, said that 120 workers tested positive. Another 156 showed symptoms and were awaiting test results under quarantine or were undergoing a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested.

During four days of extensive testing of the workforce in August, however, the outbreak appeared to have eased. During that testing, 99.3% of the entire workforce was negative for the virus, according to the company statement released Monday.

The state rules that Gebbers is accused of violating calls for workers to be separated into groups of 15 if they were to be lodged in bunk beds in labor camps. Those workers were supposed to sleep and eat in the same housing areas, and also stay together in the workplace and not intermingle with other groups.

Investigators found that hundreds of workers sleeping in the bunk beds were not told to remain in these 15-person groups, and also were being bused in groups larger than allowed.

L&I officials say that even after the investigators repeatedly returned to the labor camps in unannounced visits, the violations continued.

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“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 Ann Soiza, assistant director for L&I’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

Amy Philpott, a Gebbers spokesperson, said that the company did separate workers into groups, but they were sized at 42 people in a plan developed in consultation with an infectious disease specialist.

  “… Gebbers has always had a COVID-19 prevention program in place to protect employees; earlier it was our group-shelter program and later the states.”

The largest L&I fine of $2.38 million came after an April 2, 2010, Tesoro refinery fire that killed seven workers. The agency citations included 39 willful violations. That action triggered an extensive legal battle, and the fine has yet to be paid.

Marcia Smith Edwards, the widow of James Edwards, reached Monday, welcomed the news of the big fine against Gebbers. Edwards said she still has not been reimbursed for funeral expenses and that no one from the company has called her to talk about her husband’s death.

“No one has called to say, ‘Mrs. Edwards, I’m sorry for your loss.’ “