Washington Department of Labor and Industries
A state agency was unable to verify complaints last summer that meals served workers at Sarbanand Farms in northwest Washington were meager and poor, according to newly available records.
The Employment Security Department started asking workers about food shortly before a worker’s death drew other agencies into probing conditions at the farm. The ESD records do not include a report summarizing the department’s findings, but an official wrote that workers said that they had enough to eat.
“We were unable to substantiate the concern regarding the quality or quantity of the food provided,” ESD agricultural services director Craig Carroll wrote in an email sent Aug. 7 to others in the department.
Government agencies conducted multi-part investigations at Sarbanand, a blueberry farm in Whatcom County owned by California brothers David and Kable Munger. The farm continues to be the target of activists, a lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services and critics of the seasonal H-2A guestworker program.
The Department of Labor and Industries cleared the farm of any wrongdoing in the worker’s death and found no evidence to support claims that workers were exposed to pesticides. L&I did fine the farm for serving meals late and missing rest breaks. A judge last month ordered the fine be cut in half to $74,825
The ESD documents, released in response to a public records request from the Capital Press, shed light on allegations that meals for the farm’s some 600 workers were inadequate. L&I recorded complaints from workers about undercooked food and scant meals, and the pending lawsuit includes allegations that Sarbanand failed to provide sufficient food. Sarbanand denies the claim.
“Sarbanand tries to take good care of all of its workers, and someone is always going to complain about food when you’re feeding 600 workers,” a farm representative, Tom Pedreira, said Monday.
ESD received a second-hand complaint about the food at Sarbanand in late July, according to department records. In response, ESD farmworker outreach specialist Jennifer Lund talked to four H-2A workers walking on a road and all said they were receiving enough food.
“I talked with them independently, and all of them seemed confident in their reply that the meals being provided were adequate,” she wrote in a July 31 email to colleagues.
According to Carroll’s Aug. 7 email, Lund followed up and spoke with other workers, including many H-2A workers who were fired after going on strike. Lund wrote in another message to colleagues, “I asked about the food and indicated that I was hearing concerns about not enough food, but that I could not find a worker that wanted to file a complaint.”
The workers walked out after Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, of Mexico was taken from the farm by ambulance Aug. 2. He died four days later at a Seattle hospital of what officials said were non-work related natural causes.
ESD inspected the farm’s kitchen in September. Bertha Clayton, an ESD monitor advocate, reported that workers were served beans, rice, three to four tortillas, a leg or thigh of chicken and soda. Most also were eating noodles from a vending machine, she wrote in an email.
“Food was well prepared, but I personally don’t think that the proportion size was adequate for an adult male,” she wrote.
The farm did not put cooking facilities in worker housing because of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning and potential conflicts over who would cook, Clayton stated.