Berry picker explains why he and others went on strike at a Sumas farm
A Whatcom County blueberry farm's fine assessed by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for missed rest breaks and late meals was cut in half Tuesday by Whatcom County District Judge Pro Tem Dave Cottingham.
The fine Sarbanand Farms must now pay to the state and county is $74,825, down from the original penalty of $149,650, according to a story by the Capital Press, an agriculture website.
"We're certainly disappointed in it," L&I spokesman Tim Church said of the decision. "The meal breaks and rest periods are significant violations. We felt the fine was warranted and the size was warranted and the appropriate size, and we would have liked to have seen it upheld."
The fine was originally levied in February after an L&I investigation of conditions at Sarbanand Farms following the death of a 28-year-old migrant worker Honesto Silva Ibarra in August. An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office found that Ibarra's death wasn’t related to occupational issues at Sarbanand Farms, L&I said.
But the investigation showed workers missed their breaks or their meal periods were late.
“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 February 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.”
Sarbanand Farms, which is owned by California-based Munger Brothers, did not contest the infractions, Church said, but asked to mitigate the amount of the $73,000 base fine.
“The people at Sarbanand Farms take seriously their responsibilities with respect to worker safety and well-being, so in cooperation with L&I, we have updated our meal and rest break policies to ensure continued compliance with all applicable laws and regulations," a Sarbanand spokesperson said in a statement to the Capital Press.
Sarbanand's representatives argued the fine on top of court and administrative costs was too high, according to a story in the Lynden Tribune.
Judge Cottingham agreed, cutting the fine in half based on the employer's record keeping, according to the Tribune.
“The primary fact I’m relying on is that the employer’s own records are well kept,” Cottingham said, according to the Tribune. “Kept well enough that the department could determine that there had been a violation. I’m aware of the vast extent of bad employer record keeping that the department has to address with enormous ... burdens caused by absence of records.”
A group of area concerned residents and ministers gathered outside the Whatcom County Courthouse following the hearing, according to the Tribune, and some also took to social media to express their displeasure with the decision.
Church said there is no option to appeal the decision, though L&I still plans a follow-up visit to Sarbanand.
"We told the farm we would be doing some follow up investigations, and I assume we will," Church said. "I don't know the date of those follow ups, but we'll be back to make sure they're doing the things they told us they would be doing."