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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

FILE - A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. Boeing said Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, that it took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December and finished 2022 with its best year since 2018, which was before two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max jet and a pandemic that choked off demand for new planes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing inks deal for up to 300 737 Max planes with Ryanair

At Boeing’s list prices, the deal would be worth more than $40 billion if Ryanair exercises all the options.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Four recognized for building a better community

Economic Alliance of Snohomish County hosts annual awards

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Business Briefs: Pandemic recovery aid and workforce support program

Snohomish County launches small business COVID recovery program, and is now accepting NOFA grant applications.

Elson S. Floyd Award winner NAACP President Janice Greene. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Janice Greene: An advocate for supplier diversity and BIPOC opportunities

The president of the Snohomish County NAACP since 2008 is the recipient of this year’s Elson S. Floyd Award.

Emerging Leader Rilee Louangphakdy (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Rilee Louangphakdy: A community volunteer since his teens

Volunteering lifted his spirits and connected him with others after the death of a family member.

Emerging Leader Alex McGinty (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Alex Zitnik-McGinty: Find a group you like and volunteer!

Her volunteer activities cover the spectrum. Fitting in “service work is important as we grow.”

Opportunity Lives Here award winner Workforce Snohomish and director, Joy Emory. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Workforce Snohomish receives Opportunity Lives Here Award

Workforce offers a suite of free services to job seekers and businesses in Snohomish County.

Henry M. Jackson award winner Tom Lane. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Tom Lane: An advocate for small and local businesses

The CEO of Dwayne Lane’s Auto Family is a recipient of this year’s Henry M. Jackson Award.

John M. Fluke Sr. award winner Dom Amor. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Dom Amor: Working behind the scenes to improve the region

Dom Amor is the recipient of this year’s John M. Fluke Sr. Award

Dr. David Kirtley at the new Helion headquarters in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett nuclear fusion energy company nets first customer: Microsoft

The Everett company, on a quest to produce carbon-free electricity, agreed to provide power to the software giant by 2028.

Hunter Mattson, center, is guided by Blake Horton, right, on a virtual welding simulation during a trade fair at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, Washington, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. High school kids learned about various trades at the event. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Trade fair gives Snohomish County kids glimpse of college alternatives

Showcasing the trades, the Trade Up event in Monroe drew hundreds of high school students from east Snohomish County.

A Tesla Model Y Long Range is displayed on Feb. 24, 2021, at the Tesla Gallery in Troy, Mich.  Opinion polls show that most Americans would consider an EV if it cost less, if more charging stations existed and if a wider variety of models were available. The models are coming, but they may roll out ahead of consumer tastes. And that could spell problems for the U.S. auto industry, which is sinking billions into the new technology with dozens of new vehicles on the way.  (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Tesla leases space at Marysville business park

Elon Musk’s electric car company reportedly leased a massive new building at the Cascade Business Park.