In the aftermath of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County, Gov. Jay Inslee is ramping up virus testing requirements that agricultural employers must arrange for their workforces.
Inslee’s Wednesday proclamation reflects the continued concern about the spread of the disease among the farm-labor force, which will expand in the weeks ahead as the apple harvest unfolds with the help of thousands of guest workers from other counties who reside in labor camps.
The updated regulations require broad-scale testing whenever an agricultural employer has more than nine cases among workers within a 14-day period, or the virus attack rate equals 10% of the people they employ.
That testing must be timely, and encompass all employees and contractors willing to take the test, and anyone who declines must not be permitted by the employer to continue to work.
“There is no question that we need to escalate our response to this pandemic, and we know that additional focus must be placed on agricultural workplaces,” Inslee said in a statement, calling the measure “one step in the right direction.”
In a separate action, Secretary of Health John Wiesman ordered Gebbers Farms, which employs some 4,500 men and women, to test all of their labor force in the coming weeks.
Amy Philpott, a Gebbers Farms spokeswoman, said that the company has always supported testing, and will join with the state Department of Health to get employees tested. That effort is expected to begin Thursday, and “it’s going to take a lot of collaboration and working together on logistics,” Philpott said.
Two Gebbers guest workers — Earl Edwards, of Jamaica, and Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, of Mexico — have died this summer from complications of COVID-19. Their deaths have resulted in an ongoing state Department of Labor & Industries investigation of the family-owned company that is one off the largest orchard operators in Eastern Washington.
Gebbers protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the network of company labor camps earned high marks from Okanogan County, which is now struggling with a big upsurge in positive cases.
The Seattle Times last week reported that some workers who decided to leave early said there were gaps in the prevention efforts, and that the coughs of sick workers sometimes filled the morning air during cherry harvest.
“I got scared seeing what happened — that workers were not getting medical attention,” said Juan Celin Guerrero Camacho, who was one of seven men who shared a cabin with Rincon.
Philpott on Wednesday said that a third Gebbers worker — a domestic employee named Francisco Montiel — died Aug. 1 of complications from COVID-19. She said that Montiel started to stay home and quarantine after someone in his household tested positive, and that he then grew ill.
“He did not return to work. It was very sad,” Philpott said.
The scope of the Gebbers Farm outbreak is expected to be revealed through the upcoming testing.
Philpott reported that — as of late July — 120 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 156 employees, as of late July, showed symptoms and either were awaiting test results, under quarantine, or were going through a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested.
Philpott said Wednesday that some testing has continued in August as workers, for example, have returned from vacation.
Alejandro Sanchez, an Inslee special assistant, said that “a robust testing strategy” is a key to tracking the COVID-19 spread in the farm-labor force and that — unlike earlier in the year — there is more capacity to conduct these tests. He said the new round of testing at Gebbers will be done by the state Department of Health. State funds will be used to pay for the tests.
The outbreak at Gebbers has drawn the attention of the United Farm Workers, which has interviewed workers about their concerns and sought more state oversight.
Erik Nicholson, a United Farm Workers national vice president, welcomed the new state testing directive for Gebbers. He said that some agricultural employers had already increased efforts to test employees.