BELLINGHAM (Washington) HERALD

February 1, 2018

 

L&I investigation says Sumas farm not at fault in farmworker’s death

BY KIE RELYEA

 

A Sumas blueberry farm wasn’t at fault in the death of a 28-year-old migrant worker in August, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries announced Thursday.

An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office found that Honesto Silva Ibarra died from natural causes and that his death wasn’t related to occupational issues at Sarbanand Farms, L&I said, adding that the agency shared information and discussed the case with the medical examiner.

However, the agency did cite Sarbanand Farms because hundreds of farmworkers didn’t get regular breaks for meals or rest as required by law. They missed their breaks or their meal periods were late, according to L&I.

The farm, owned by California-based Munger Brothers, faces state and local fines of nearly $150,000, the agency said in announcing the results of its investigation.

About half of the fine is from L&I, the agency said, making it the largest penalty assessed by the state for such violations.

“These violations are serious. Meal and rest breaks are especially important for farm workers,” Elizabeth Smith, assistant director of L&I’s Fraud Prevention and Labor Standards, said in a statement. “It’s physical labor, and they often work long hours outside in the elements. They need regular breaks, and they’re required by law to get them.”

Ibarra fell ill while working at Sarbanand Farms and was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died Aug. 6.

He was among about 600 workers, all from Mexico, who were brought to the farm to pick blueberries under the H-2A visa program, which allows farms to employ seasonal laborers when they can’t find enough U.S. workers to do the job.

After he fell ill, about 70 workers went on a one-day strike to protest what they said were poor working conditions and lack of medical care for Ibarra. They were later fired.

Investigation

L&I launched an investigation into Ibarra’s death and conditions at the farm.

Three teams, with members that were bilingual, examined workplace safety, pesticide use and exposure, and employment standards, which included wages, hours worked, and rest and meal breaks.

Investigators also interviewed Ibarra’s work crew, a family member who was with him the day he became ill, roommates, his wife by phone, work supervisors and others.

They spent three days at the farm, L&I said, looking into the availability of drinking water, shade and restrooms.

Investigators found no workplace safety or health violations, the agency said.

They also reviewed Sarbanand’s farm records, covering several days, looking at details about breaks and hours worked.

Employees are allowed a 10-minute paid break in every four hours worked, L&I said. An unpaid 30-minute meal period is required for those working five hours or more, and a second meal period is required for those working more than 11 hours a day.

Sarbanand violated those provisions of the law, according to L&I, and was fined $149,800.

The farm told the state agency it has corrected the violations, and L&I said it will conduct a follow-up inspection to make sure workers are getting the required meal and rest breaks.

A class action lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the farmworkers alleges violations of federal and state labor laws.