Sumas blueberry farm is fined $149,000 on breaks and meals

SUMAS — A Whatcom County blueberry farm has been fined $149,000 after a state investigation found violations related to late or missed rest breaks and meal periods for hundreds of workers.

Sarbanand Farms in Sumas received the largest fine of its kind, according to the state Department of Labor & Industries.

Investigators started looking into the farm’s practices in August after farmworker Honesto Silva Ibarra fell ill while at the farm, was hospitalized and later died. The three different L&I teams investigated workplace safety, pesticide concerns and employment standards.

The team looking into workplace safety sought to find out if Ibarra’s death was related to his work on the farm — the investigation found no related violations. An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Ibarra died from natural causes not related to occupational issues, the L&I release stated.

The team looking into pesticide use on the farm also found no violations.

The fine is a result of the investigation into employment standards, which includes issues like wages, hours worked and rest and meal breaks.

About half that fine, $73,000, is from L&I; the rest is from the Whatcom County District Court, where the civil infraction is filed, according to an L&I press release.

“These violations are serious. Meal and rest breaks are especially important for farm workers,” said Elizabeth Smith, assistant director of L&I’s Fraud Prevention and Labor Standards. “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.”

Sarbanand Farms told L&I that it has corrected the violations, according to an L&I press release. L&I will conduct a follow-up inspection to ensure those corrections are still in place.

The farm, along with its parent company Munger Farms, also got hit with a class action lawsuit last week on behalf of more than 600 migrant farmworkers who picked blueberries on the company’s farms in Washington and California, including in Sumas, during the 2017 season.

The lawsuit alleges that Sarbanand “violated federal anti-trafficking laws through a pattern of threats and intimidation that caused its H-2A workforce to believe they would suffer serious harm unless they fully submitted to Sarbanand’s labor demands.”

The H-2A program is a special type of visa specifically designed to help farms bring in seasonal workers from other countries. Workers in the program must be paid a special minimum wage, which in Washington during the 2017 blueberry season was $13.38. At Sarbanand Farms, H-2A workers live onsite, in housing that was built for them, and are given meals, the cost of which is deducted from their paycheck.

Ibarra, who was from Mexico, was at the farm on an H-2A visa, as were Barabaro Rosas and Guadalupe Tapia, the two plaintiffs specifically named in the suit.

After Ibarra was hospitalized, about 60 workers went on a one-day strike to protest working conditions at the farm.

According to the lawsuit, workers were fed unhealthy food, and sometimes there wasn’t enough for all the workers, or they were given small portions.

They were also not provided shade in the fields, and weren’t given enough water, the lawsuit says.

“You came here to suffer, not for vacation,” California workers were allegedly told by a Munger manager, according to the lawsuit.

In Sumas, the workers — many of whom were transferred there after working the earlier blueberry season at Munger Farms in California — were told they were required to work “unless they were on their death bed,” the lawsuit alleges.

That speech “had the intended effect of informing all the H-2A foreign workers that they should not report sickness or workplace injuries to management,” the lawsuit says.

After the one-day strike Aug. 4, all the workers who participated in the strike were fired.

According to the lawsuit, they were told they had one hour to gather their belongings and leave, or the farm would contact the police and immigration authorities. Owners of a neighboring property offered the workers temporary shelter, and many of them moved into a makeshift camp on that farm.

Ibarra died at Harborview Hospital in Seattle on Aug. 6.

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