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Mexican workers who left mid-harvest describe a COVID-ridden cherry season in Okanogan County: ‘It was like we were disposable’

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 16, 2020

By Hal Bernton Seattle Times

After 11 years of seasonal work at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County, Mexican guest worker Ernesto Dimas was accustomed to the rigors of the cherry harvest. He would rise long before dawn, then start picking during the early morning hours, when the fruit was still cool and would not be damaged by handling during the heat of the day.

This year, there was a new hardship. He and many of his colleagues grew ill with some of the symptoms of COVID-19. They were congested. Some had fevers that spiked in the evening. And in the orchards, as they labored, the signs of the sickness were hard to ignore.

“You could hear people coughing everywhere,” Dimas said in an interview from his home in Mexico.

Dimas is one of numerous former Gebbers Farms workers who cut their harvest season short this summer and went home due to concerns about COVID-19. All three spoke of a disturbing breakdown in oversight amid a growing outbreak of illness in their Okanogan County camp, where one of their friends – Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon – died in early July. Rincon’s death spurred an investigation of work conditions at Gebbers Farms by the state Department of Labor & Industries that now includes the circumstances surrounding the July 31 death of a second worker, Earl Edwards, who was from Jamaica.

In the Okanogan County camp where the guest workers resided, safety gaps described by the three Mexican workers included problems with a daily temperature check intended to identify sick people who needed to be sent to isolation cabins in a separate area.

A supervisor who did that task grew ill and passed the job to a guest worker, who – even when someone’s temperature was high – would often record a normal temperature instead, according to Dimas and the other two workers.

“We would say, ‘Give us a chance. We are here to work,’ and he would write down a different temperature,” Dimas said.

In an August statement, company spokesperson Amy Philpott said Gebbers Farms officials aren’t aware of anyone who is incorrectly recording daily temperature. “If this was happening, it is unacceptable, we do not in any way condone it, and we want to know about it,” she said.

For the workers, Rincon’s death stripped them of their drive to stick with the harvest. They all went home in July, far short of the November end of their six-month contracts.

Fellow workers said Rincon grew sick earlier in the summer but took medicine and managed to keep working in the orchards until July 7, when he felt weak and was transferred to an isolation camp.

His condition worsened July 8, so workers at that isolation camp called an ambulance, but he died by the end of the day, according to his brother-in-law, Juan Celin Guerrero Camacho.

Camacho, who shared a cabin with Rincon, said that by then, five of the seven people he bunked with had symptoms of COVID-19.

“I got scared seeing what happened – that workers were not getting medical attention,” Camacho said.

Philpott said last week that the company sent someone daily to check on workers in the isolation camp and provided free food and medicine, as well as help filling out forms for any state financial assistance available to those unable to work.

‘There is still more work that needs to be done’

Gebbers Farms, which is family owned, is one of the largest orchard operations in Eastern Washington, employing some 4,500 workers, including more than 2,000 guest workers.

Company officials say they developed extensive protocols to reduce the risks of COVID-19 spread, including an initial five-day quarantine of guest workers upon their arrival, mandatory wearing of masks while working, and daily cleaning and sanitizing of worker housing.

As of late July, 120 Gebbers Farms workers had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Another 156 employees showed symptoms and either were quarantined while awaiting test results or were going through a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested, according to the August statement released by the company.

Gebbers is a major economic force in Okanogan County, which has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases recently. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee went there to meet with local government officials, tribal leaders, farmworker advocates and orchard industry officials. Inslee said he met with Gebbers CEO Cass Gebbers during the visit and was encouraged by what he heard about efforts to expand testing and make medical care more available.

“There has been some recent improvement,” Ins- lee said, “but there is still ore work that needs to be done.”

The Lacey-based Washington Farm Labor Association, which helps Gebbers bring workers to the United States, also is working to improve oversight of isolation camps. In an email, WAFLA thanked the state Department of Labor & Industries for “pointing out that workers in isolation should be visited daily by trained health officials” and announced a $25,000 contribution to Okanogan County Public Health to add to its budget for emergency medical technicians to do wellness checks.

‘It was like we were disposable’

The three former workers all said they had worked at Gebbers in previous years and the jobs were a welcome source of cash to help their families. In a six-month period, Dimas said, it was possible to earn $15,000.

And the three workers – one of whom requested anonymity due to concerns about future employment – said it was a difficult decision to forgo the rest of the season and return home.

They were recently contacted in Mexico by the United Farm Workers, which has investigated conditions at Gebbers Farms.

The workers said their resolve to leave Gebbers was fortified by an incident that happened after Rincon’s death, when they asked someone in management if the company would pay for Rincon’s ashes to be returned home to Mexico.

They said they were told that the workers should raise money for the costs, then come back and report how much they had raised.

“It made me very sad. Juan Carlos (Rincon) had been up there for 10 years. I had been there for many years and given service to Gebbers and the state of Washington picking cherries, pears and apples,” Dimas said. “… It was like we were disposable. Like we didn’t matter.”

“I was told the company takes no responsibility. But if we raised money, maybe they would add a little bit,” recalls Camacho, Rincon’s brother-in-law.

Workers from many different parts of Mexico then pitched in some $9,000, according to Camacho.

Philpott, the company spokesperson, saw the events differently. She says the company always intended to pay the costs of sending Rincon’s ashes back to Mexico, and did.

“Of all the erroneous allegations, this is one of the most hurtful to the Gebbers family, who firmly believes in dignity and respect for everyone,” she said. “The farm paid for all funeral-home expenses and the plane ticket for a family member to return home with the remains.”

Camacho confirms that the company did eventually foot the bill. But he said the offer came only after the workers did their own fundraising.

Camacho said he’s the family member who, at company expense, took Rincon’s ashes home to Querétaro. He said he gave Rincon’s parents the money the workers had contributed.

Gebbers offered to fly Camacho back to Okanogan County to resume the harvest. He declined.

“I said, ‘I am going to stay home,’ ” Camacho said. “This year, I don’t want to come back.”

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