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Washington farm to pay more than $2M following COVID deaths

Associated Press

Associated Press

The state of Washington has reached a settlement with Gebbers Farms Operations LP to spend more than $2 million improving housing, quality of life, safety and access to health care for farm employees and their families.

The Washington state Department of Labor & Industries announced the settlement Wednesday in a case that involved one of the largest workplace safety and health fines in state history.

Gebbers Farms, located in Brewster, Washington, was fined $2 million and $13,200 after two inspections in 2020 found 24 egregious willful violations – 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements in temporary worker housing and 12 for unsafe worker transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two farmworkers died from coronavirus while living and working on the farm. Gebbers was also cited for six other serious violations, including not reporting a fatality.

The other investigation found the farm was not ensuring adequate social distancing by allowing workers to sleep in both top and bottom bunks and there were no barriers in the kitchen and cooking areas.

“Real, on-the-ground improvements for farmworkers and their families are a fitting way to honor the memories of the Gebbers’ workers who died,” said L&I director Joel Sacks.

An effort to reach Gebbers for comment wasn’t immediately successful.

Under the settlement, Gebbers will make approximately $1.4 million in capital improvements to temporary worker housing. That includes demolishing and rebuilding one of its older, temporary worker housing camps. Three new living units with all new amenities will be built in its place.

The company will also build a cell tower so workers have reliable communication with family, upgrade electrical to support washing machines and dryers for workers, buy new mattresses for temporary worker housing, install air conditioning units and make power upgrades.

The company will also donate $513,000 to improve access to health care for workers and their families. The money will go to area hospitals, health care centers, emergency medical services, day care and recreational centers serving the workers and their families.

Gebbers Farms will also spend $150,000 to hire a full-time employee for three years to supervise worker safety and health. The officer will have authority to stop any activity deemed unsafe or in violation of the safety and health rules.

In exchange for these actions, the fines resulting from the citations will be reduced to $10,000.

Sacks said the settlement will end what could have been years of expensive court fights.

“This settlement means the company will put significant money where it will help the most: improving health, safety and quality of life for farmworkers and their families,” Sacks said.