Gebbers Farms reaches settlement with L&I over COVID-related fines

For the Basin Business Journal | September 3, 2021 1:00 AM

BREWSTER — In a case likely watched in the central Washington fruit industry, Brewster-based cherry and apple grower Gebbers Farms agreed to spend nearly $2 million to improve conditions for workers in an agreement with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).

The agreement comes following two L&I inspections in 2020 that found two dozen violations for unsafe conditions in transporting workers and temporary worker housing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an L&I press release.

“Two farm workers died from coronavirus (COVID-19) while living and working on the farm,” the L&I press release said. “Gebbers was also cited for six other serious violations including not reporting a fatality.”

L&I investigators also determined Gebbers Farms was not ensuring “adequate social distancing” by allowing workers to use both top and bottom bunks in worker housing and by not installing barriers in kitchen or cooking areas, the press release said.

As a result of the agreement, in addition to the fine, Gebbers will spend $1.4 million on improvements to worker housing, including demolishing and rebuilding one older worker housing camp from the 1970s, electrical upgrades to existing housing, installation of additional air conditioning and a cellphone tower — as well as $513,000 on improved access to health care for workers and $150,000 to hire a full-time safety officer.

L&I initially fined Gebbers Farms more than $2 million in 2020. Under the settlement, however, Gebbers Farms will pay a $10,000 fine to L&I and spend the rest on the improvements, according to L&I spokesperson Dina Lorraine.

In a press release, Gebbers Farms CEO Cass Gebbers said the company implemented pandemic response protocols developed in cooperation with an infectious disease specialist.

“Gebbers Farms has always cared deeply about the wellbeing and safety of its workers,” Gebbers said in the release. “Each year, Gebbers Farms makes improvements to its temporary housing facilities to enhance the safety and comfort of its workers. This mediation agreement will result in even more improvements, and it will benefit the community at large through the farm’s donations to community charities and nonprofits.”

Gebbers also said while the company is “pleased” to have the issue resolved, Gebbers Farms lost longtime employees and family members, as well.

“These men, their families, and all Gebbers employees are part of the reason why we are gratified that the agreement includes our continued investment in our workers and our local communities,” he added.

Lorraine said the fine is not the largest in the state’s history. In 2010, L&I fined Tesoro $2.39 million following an explosion at its Anacortes refinery that killed seven workers.

According to Lorraine, Tesoro — which is now owned by Ohio-based oil refiner and distributor Marathon Petroleum — appealed the fine, and a final determination on the case is still pending.