After a Mexican orchard worker died earlier this month from COVID 19 complications, the state Department of Labor & Industries is demanding changes in the farm labor camps of a major eastern Washington fruit grower that employed the man in Okanogan County.
The “order and notice of restraint” results from several site visits in an investigation of a Gebbers Farms’ labor camp where the worker, who died July 8, was lodged. The notice requires Gebbers to either remove bunk beds in this and other company labor camps, or comply with a state rule that requires camp workers to be in groups that live, travel and labor together.
“We take this very seriously. The choice is pretty simple. Stop using bunk beds or follow all the requirements,” said Tim Church, a Labor & Industries spokesman who added that the unusual action reflects the risks of the disease spreading to other workers.
Failure to comply with the order carries the risk of criminal penalties.
In a statement, the family-own company’s chief executive officer, Cass Gebbers, disputed the Labor department’s description of their COVID-19 protocols, which he said were reviewed by a consultant who also serves as a program officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The accusations … are simply false,” Gebbers said in the statement that declared workers already are properly separated into distinct groups that live and work together, although the company cannot dictate what happens during off-duty hours.
The state investigation comes at a time of rapid spread of COVID-19 in Okanogan, a largely rural county with a population of fewer than 44,000. As of data released Friday, 551 people in Okanogan County have tested positive, a more than 10-fold increase from the beginning of June.
Gebbers is an Okanogan County 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.
Since the novel coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year, 120 workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 156 employees showed symptoms and either are awaiting test results under quarantine, or are going through a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested, according to the statement released by Gebbers.
These employees reside in farm labor camps that have been a major concern for state health officials trying to reduce the spread of the virus among agricultural laborers who are part of the essential workforce.
To reduce risks, state officials, working with industry and labor groups, developed COVID-19 rules for camps that were published this spring.
In Okanogan, Gebbers’ efforts to combat COVID-19 have garnered praise from county health officials.
“It is clear that Gebbers Farms has gone to great lengths and expenses to keep its workers safe during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Dr. John McCarthy, health officer for Okanogan County Health in a July 18 letter to Cass Gebbers that commended the company’s “stringent COVID-19 protocols.”
Testing seeks extent of outbreak
The state investigation of Gebbers began after the United Farm Workers (UFW) received reports from about a half dozen company workers about the spread of COVID-19 at a labor camp near Brewster.
Those workers were frustrated they could not get testing, said Erik Nicholson, a UFW national vice president based in Eastern Washington.
“They were terrified that they might get sick, and feared they would be sent back to Mexico if they caused problems,” said Nicholson, who made a referral about their complaints — and the worker death — to the state.
In recent weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has spurred expanded community testing of more than 400 people, including seasonal farm workers whom Gebbers encouraged to participate and offered transportation to the site where swab samples were taken.
More than 45% of the tests — offered for free — came back positive, which is more than seven times higher than the state’s positive rate, according to Scott Graham, chief executive of Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster.
“It is unfortunate that the positive rate is so high,” Scott said. “This is just the beginning of our testing. If we are able to sustain it, then we will have a bigger pool to evaluate and see what the numbers look like.”
Nicholson said he thinks the Gebbers testing should have happened sooner, even if it meant the company had to pick up the costs. “We still don’t know the full extent of the outbreak,” Nicholson said.
Death of long-time worker
So far, three people in Okanogan County have died from COVID-19 complications, including one Mexican national, according to county health officials. And state officials confirmed that there was a worker who died at the Gebbers camp from COVID-19 complications.
Gebbers, in his statement, said he did not know the cause of the worker’s death, whom he identified as Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon.
“We were saddened to learn of Mr. Rincon’s passing … and our hearts and blessings go out to his family and friends,” Gebbers wrote.
Rincon was under 40 years of age and had worked for Gebbers for more than a decade, according to Dan Fazio, of Olympia-based WAFLA, which assists Gebbers and Northwest farming operations that hire foreign workers who obtain temporary H-2A visas.
“We are really broken up about it,” he said.