Sarbanand temporary farmworkers protest on Rock Road in Sumas on Aug. 8, 2017. (Ashley Hiruko/Lynden Tribune)

State agency fines Sarbanand for missed breaks, late meal times, however

WHATCOM — No safety or workplace violations contributed to the death of a Mexican farmworker for Sarbanand Farms of Sumas last summer, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has concluded after an investigation.

Honesto Silva Ibarra, 28, died at a Seattle hospital Aug. 6, 2017, four days after he was taken from the Rock Road farm.

“An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Ibarra’s death was caused from natural causes and not related to occupational issues,” stated an L&I news announcement on Thursday, Feb. 1.

The incident at the time — when the reason for Ibarra’s sickness and death was unclear — set off a protest by other farmworkers and the firing of about 65 for not working. Two days after the death, Sarbanand said Ibarra died from a diabetic condition he had not previously disclosed.

The state agency did however, cite Sarbanand for potentially up to $150,000 in state and local fines for violations related to missed employee breaks and late meal periods.

Labor & Industries fined the company $73,000 for infractions that occurred in July 2017. Whatcom County District Court can add an amount up to 105 percent of the fine for court and administrative costs.

This is the largest penalty ever assessed by L&I for these types of violations, the agency said.

“It was a thorough investigation that took a lot of hours and a lot of people at L&I,” said Tim Church, department spokesman. He added that three teams were used in the investigation — not a usual occurrence.

The labor department began its probe into the Ibarra death and Sumas H-2A farmworkers’ treatment on Aug. 9, 2017.

Those interviewed during the investigation included Ibarra’s work crew, a family member who was with him the day he fell ill, roommates, his wife in Mexico and work supervisors.

“We are relieved and reassured that 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,” a Sarbanand spokesperson said.

Colleagues and employers of the 28-year-old temporary worker gave conflicting accounts as to what had occurred and what attributed to Ibarra’s death last year.

Co-workers claimed that Ibarra was not provided medical attention by the employers at the blueberry farm after he became ill. Representatives of the farm countered, saying that they immediately got transport for Ibarra and his nephew accompanying him to Bellingham and then to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

In a statement given on Aug. 8, 2017, Cliff Woolley, Sarbanand chief administrative officer, said the farm responded properly upon learning of Ibarra’s condition but also needed to follow confidentiality law in what it could say. Woolley said that Ibarra had diabetes and died from complications of it.

Ibarra’s death and alleged poor treatment sparked a farmworker protest on Friday, Aug. 4. About 65 workers, those who had protested, were fired and given an hour to leave the Rock Road premises the next day. A march along roadways occurred on Aug. 8.

Housed in tents and tarps, the workers resided on Telegraph Road on a citizen’s property for days until being provided means of transportation home to Mexico by the farm.

Just two weeks ago, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Sarbanand Farms, its parent company Munger Bros. LLC. of California and labor company CSI Visa Processing. On behalf of potentially 600 plaintiffs, the suit claims violations of both state and federal laws in the treatment of H-2A farmworkers. The suit is not tied to the L&I case.

In a media statement on Feb. 1, Save Family Farming noted the L&I conclusion on Ibarra’s death and called on two farmworker support organizations, Community to Community Development and Familias Unidas por la Justicia, “to retract and apologize to Ibarra’s family, the larger farmworker community and Sarbanand Farms for the many unfounded claims they have made about unsafe working conditions, including calling the death of Ibarra ‘corporate murder.’

“Today’s announcement from L&I shows that our system is working — workers are protected by a broad array of federal and state laws and regulations, including requiring sufficient, quality food and allowing adequate rest breaks, and L&I’s action shows those rules are being enforced in detail,” Save Family Farming said.

On the other side, Community to Community Development, which has led worker protests, had this Facebook post about the L&I decision: “We are deeply disappointed with the structures and agencies that are put in place that are supposed to protect farmworkers. The findings do not represent the reality of what is happening on the farms and we will continue to fight for justice. A farmworker’s life is worth more than the reduced fine that was imposed on a corporate farm that amounts to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.”