Earl Edwards was a Jamaican farmer who in the winter grew ginger, garlic and other crops on his tropical island nation homeland in the Caribbean. For the past decade, he would head north each year for seasonal work at the Gebbers Farms in Washington’s arid Okanogan County. This year, he did so amid a global coronavirus pandemic that sickened him and — on July 31 — took his life.
His death is now part of an ongoing state investigation into conditions at Gebbers Farms labor camps.
The 63-year-old spent his final days in an isolation camp, talking several times a day to his wife, Marcia Smith Edwards. He told her he was weak and sick and hoped to return to Jamaica.
“He said, ‘I want to come home. … I am feeling like a fish out of water. … Nobody cares for us here,'” Marcia recalls.
Edwards’ widow is grieving, and she is angry. She says her husband should have been monitored more closely by a doctor or other trained medical professional at the isolation camp, and that Gebbers Farms should have offered him more support.
Edwards’ death due to COVID-19 complications — confirmed to The Seattle Times by the Okanogan County coroner — is the second coronavirus death of a guest worker employed at Gebbers Farm. Some workers now say they want to leave early.
Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for Gebbers Farms, said the company sent someone daily to check on workers in the isolation camp — including Edwards, who Philpott said had appeared to be improving — and provided free food and medicine, as well as help filling out forms for any state financial assistance available to those unable to work.
Marcia said she was not aware of anyone checking on her husband in the days before he died.
State and county involvement
Even before Edwards’ death, Gebbers Farm was the target of a Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) investigation into compliance with state rules to slow the virus’s spread. At least 120 workers have tested positive and at least another 156 have shown symptoms and been quarantined.
In July, as part of its investigation, L&I made a rare move by issuing “an order and notice of restraint” that required Gebbers to either remove bunk beds in camps or comply with a state rule that camp workers be in groups that live, travel and labor together.
L&I spokesperson Tim Church said the company had requested a variance to allow larger groups to be formed, but that request hadn’t been granted.
In a July statement, Gebbers Farms chief executive Cass Gebbers said the state’s “accusations … are simply false” and that workers already are properly separated into distinct groups that live and work together, although the company cannot dictate what happens during off-duty hours.
This week — in a separate educational effort — state L&I and Employment Security Department staff spoke with some 200 workers to provide information about workplace safety, paid sick leave and other state benefits.
State and county officials have been scrambling to grasp the scope of the virus’s spread in Okanogan County, which — though largely rural and sparsely populated — is now one of the Northwest’s hot spots. Most of the county’s nearly 800 cases have been in the Brewster area, where Gebbers Farms is headquartered. Beginning next week, National Guard members from Washington state will help provide mobile testing around the county, said Lauri Jones of the Okanogan County Health District.
County officials have praised Gebbers’ efforts to control the coronavirus at its network of Okanogan County labor camps. And Philpott says the company is following all recommended guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our hearts go out to the more than 700,000 families around the world who have lost loved ones to this unprecedented global pandemic. We will continue to support the health and well-being of our employees and our community by following public health recommendations,” said a statement from Philpott.
Workers consider leaving rather than risk the virus
A different view of the situation has emerged from interviews with guest workers by a United Farm Workers investigator who traveled to Okanogan County earlier this week. At a camp south of Brewster, Mexican workers told the union they feared the virus, and that many of their colleagues already had quit their jobs and headed home before the start of the upcoming apple harvest season.
They said they were wary of acknowledging illness symptoms to supervisors and getting sent to recover in an isolation camp, where they worried they’d get inadequate care and lose wages for missing work days.
“They were scared of those camps,” said Victoria Ruddy, the Pacific Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers, which does not represent any Gebbers employees but has been looking into the situation due to calls from concerned workers.
Ruddy said she visited an isolation camp with six workers, none of whom said they were receiving care from a medical professional.
Some Jamaican workers also are deciding they want to end their jobs with Gebbers, according to one worker, who said he was living with six other men in a small camp cabin.
“Earl Edwards was a friend of mine. I feel so bad for him. If a guy is sick, you should pay him better attention,” said the worker, who insisted on anonymity due to concerns about workplace retaliation.
Philpott said she didn’t know how many workers were heading home early but that some opt to do so every year.
Testing was another concern. Workers told Ruddy they’d heard from their colleagues about coronavirus tests that could cost hundreds of dollars. So, even if they felt sick, they were reluctant to go to town to see a doctor.
A Brewster hospital official said some free community testing has been available to those who couldn’t pay, but if workers showed up at the hospital emergency room with symptoms, they would typically have been billed.
‘Your husband is not well”
Marcia Smith Edwards said her husband typically did outdoor work for Gebbers Farms, which is a major Eastern Washington fruit producer. But this year, he had a difficult indoor job working in a fruit packing plant.
One night, he called her to say he wasn’t going to work because he felt a bit stuffy and was coughing. She urged him to see a doctor who could test for COVID-19, which he did. But during his 10 days in the isolation camp, she said, he was never able to learn the results. (A postmortem test on Edwards came back positive, said Okanogan County Coroner David Rodriguez.)
Edwards also took his wife’s advice to try some home remedies, such as boiled ginger. But his symptoms persisted, and he kept telling her, “Your husband is not well.”
The couple have two daughters, one of whom was the last to speak to Edwards.
“He said, ‘I love you, and I’m going to get a shower,'” Marcia Smith Edwards recalled him saying to their daughter.