Courtesy Community To Community
Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash., was fined $149,800 Thursday for one missed rest break and one late meal, but was cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with a worker’s death.
Workplace conditions did not contribute to the death in August of Honesto Silva Ibarra, who was taken away by ambulance and died several days later at a hospital, according to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.
“We looked at drinking water and there was ample drinking water,” L&I spokesman Tim Church said. “There were shade tents in the field even though they weren’t required. They (the farm) provided documentation of heat-illness training.”
The state initiated the investigation after activists accused the Whatcom County blueberry farm, owned by Munger Bros. of California, of forcing a sick Ibarra back to work.
L&I also looked into the farm’s employment practices and allegations that workers were being exposed to pesticides. L&I found no pesticide violations, but did find one day on which workers were served a meal at least one hour late and did not have a 10-minute rest break, Church said.
L&I called the employment violations serious and that it was the largest fine of its kind ever issued by the department.
Munger said in a statement that the company was considering its options in challenging the fine.
It said it was pleased to have been exonerated of any culpability in Ibarra’s death.
“We are relieved and reassured that the state investigators concluded what we have known all along — that Mr. Ibarra’s death, while tragic, was not the result of the company’s actions or policies,” the company said.
A farm manager called 911 to summon an ambulance for Ibarra, 28, on Aug. 2. He died four days later in Seattle. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ibarra died from natural causes unrelated to work, according to L&I.
Authorities were not more specific about the cause of death. The farm said last summer it learned from a relative that Ibarra was diabetic.
Two days after Ibarra was taken away, about 70 other workers from Mexico walked out to protest. Community to Community Development, based in Bellingham, accused farm managers of ordering an ailing Ibarra back to work. The advocacy group Save Family Farming said Thursday in a statement that Community to Community should apologize for unfounded claims about unsafe working conditions, Efforts to reach Community to Community to comment were unsuccessful.
Columbia Legal Services and Seattle law firm Schroeter Goldman and Bender filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleging Sarbanand underfed and intimidated Mexican nationals, and unlawfully fired workers who staged a one-day strike after Ibarra’s death. The lawsuit does not blame the farm for the death.
Munger called the allegations untrue and vowed to fight the lawsuit.
Seven L&I investigators participated in the probe of the farm. Investigators interviewed members of Ibarra’s work crew, a family member with him on day he fell ill, and his roommates, supervisors and wife.
Church said L&I investigators also interviewed farmworkers about employment practices and examined farm records from July 14 to July 28.
He said the department found a rest break had been missed and a meal served late July 27. Workers must be given a 10-minute break every four hours and receive a 30-minute meal break within one hour of having worked four hours.
Church said he did not know exactly how late the meal was served. He said investigators believe the farm’s entire workforce that day, 583 workers, was involved.
The department concluded each worker represented a separate violation by the farm. L&I roughly halved the number of violations to 292 because of the company’s cooperation, Church said.
L&I levied the maximum $250 penalty for each violation for a total of $73,000. The Whatcom County District Court, where L&I filed the civil infraction Thursday, slightly more than doubled the fine, a standard procedure, Church said. He said the entire fine will go the county.