UFW says settlement lets ‘indescribably negligent’ company off the hook in the deaths of two farm workers
TUMWATER, Wash. (Aug. 5, 2021) — The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) on Wednesday announced a settlement with Gebbers Farms, one of the biggest apple and cherry growers in the Pacific Northwest, under which the company will spend more than $2 million improving housing and access to health care for farm workers to avoid that amount in fines for willful safety violations. A representative of the United Farm Workers said the deal lets the company off the hook.
In December 2020, L&I fined Gebbers Farms of Okanogan County $2,038,200 and $13,200 after two inspections found 24 egregious willful violations: 12 for unsafe sleeping arrangements in temporary worker housing and 12 for unsafe worker transportation during the coronavirus pandemic. Two farmworkers on temporary H-2A visas — Earl Edwards, 63, of Jamaica and Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, 37, of Mexico — died from COVID-19 in July 2020 while living and working on the farm. Gebbers was also cited for six other serious violations including not reporting a fatality.
Under the settlement announced Wednesday, Gebbers will make approximately $1.4 million in capital improvements to temporary worker housing and will donate $513,000 to area hospitals, health care centers, emergency medical services, day cares and rec centers to improve access to health care for workers and their families. Gebbers also will spend $150,000 to hire a full-time safety officer for three years. In exchange for those expenditures, L&I will reduce the fines to $10,000 and there is no admission of guilt by the company.
“This settlement essentially gifts millions to lawbreaking negligent employer,” said Elizabeth Strater of the United Farm Workers. “The $1.4 million in ‘capital improvements’ will be written off as business expenses and will result in improved asset value on the company’s balance sheet. An egregiously noncompliant company should not be economically better off after flaunting state law, resulting in the deaths of two farm workers. Fines are supposed to be a disincentive and cost the company; not improve their financial position. (L&I) should have taken this to court so there would be public record of how indescribably negligent Gebbers was.”
“Washington’s labor movement mourns the preventable deaths of Earl Edwards and Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon,” said Larry Brown, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “When companies like Gebbers Farms show willful disregard for their employees’ safety – and literally put their lives at risk – aggressive enforcement is warranted. While the settlement amount is significant, unfortunately it does not allow the full story to become public record and it does not discourage employers from harming workers.”
“The people who feed us are not machines,” Brown said. “They deserve protections from COVID-19, from heat stress, from wildfire smoke, and from other hazardous working conditions.”
L&I Director Joel Sacks defended the settlement.
“Instead of possibly spending years and taxpayer resources in court to potentially collect fines, 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. “Because a court could not order Gebbers to make these changes, this is a better result for workers than we could have achieved through litigation.”
Marcia Edwards, Earl Edwards’ widow in Jamaica, told Public Integrity that conditions and health services were lacking at Gebbers.
“He complained that there were too many men in the room,” she said. After he and other men received an initial medical exam, she said her husband wasn’t provided follow-up visits or treatment while he was in isolation in a bunkhouse for infected workers. He died two hours after she last spoke to him.
“Nobody cared for them,” Marcia said. “They were chucked aside.”