Gebbers Farms Operations will spend more than $2 million to improve worker housing and health care in a settlement reached with the state Department of Labor & Industries.
The improvements will resolve a case stemming from state citations for violating COVID-19 safety regulations in 2020 when two employees of the Okanogan-based orchards died from the coronavirus.
The L&I investigation of Gebbers last year found 24 egregious willful violations — 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements in temporary worker housing and 12 for unsafe worker transportation during the pandemic.
As a result of the investigation, L&I fined Gebbers Farms more than $2 million, a payment that would have been made directly to state government.
In the settlement, the company will make a series of investments that include $1.4 million in improvements to Gebbers temporary worker housing, donating $513,000 to area hospitals and other health care services to improve access for workers and families and hiring a full-time safety officer to monitor worker health and safety, according to a statement released Wednesday by L&I.
The state fine, under the settlement, is now $10,000.
“Instead of possibly spending years and taxpayer resources in court to potentially collect fines, this settlement means the company will put significant money where it will help the most … this is a better result for workers than we could have achieved through litigation,” said L&I director Joe Sacks in a statement released Wednesday.
Gebbers is an agricultural powerhouse, one of the biggest apple growers in the Pacific Northwest and a global provider of cherries. To grow and harvest this orchard fruit, the company employs some 4,500 people, about half of whom are guest workers who labor seasonally through a temporary agricultural visa program and another half of whom are local.
Two guest workers, Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, of Mexico, and Earl Edwards, of Jamaica contracted COVID-19 and died while employed by Gebbers.
Some workers cut their harvest season short this summer and went home due to concerns about COVID-19. The Seattle Times spoke with three of them last summer, and they spoke of a disturbing breakdown in oversight amid a growing outbreak of illness in their camp.
“You could hear people coughing everywhere,” Ernesto Dimas said in an interview from his home in Mexico last year.
Gebbers officials contested the state citations of safety rule violations, and the settlement does not include an admission of guilt.
“Gebbers Farms has always cared deeply about the well-being and safety of its workers,” said Cass Gebbers, CEO of Gebbers Farms in a written statement.
“Sadly, in 2020, Gebbers Farms also lost longtime team members and familiar faces to our family. These men, their families, and all Gebbers employees are part of the reason why we are gratified that the agreement includes our continued investment in our workers and our local communities.”
In the Gebbers statement released Wednesday, the company cited a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study that found workers who lived in Gebbers-provided housing were less likely to contract COVID than workers who lived in nearby communities.
Washington L&I, in the past, has allowed investments — rather than fines — as part of a settlement but never before on this scale, according to L&I spokesman Matt Ross.
Some farmworker advocates were critical of the terms of the settlement, which allows most of the money to be invested into the company’s own operations.
“Fines are supposed to be a disincentive, and cost the company, not improve their financial position,” said Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with the United Farm Workers, which called Gebbers an “egregiously noncompliant company.”
Amy Philipot, a Gebbers spokesperson, said it is “hard to believe that anyone could oppose” a settlement that helps farmworkers and their communities.