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L&I cites and fines Sarbanand Farms for missed breaks and late meal times

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Feb. 1, 2018 #18-005

Safety investigation into circumstances of worker death finds no violations

Tumwater – A Sumas-area farm faces nearly $150,000 in state and local fines in connection with violations related to missed employee breaks and late meal periods. It's the largest penalty ever assessed by the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) for these types of violations.

L&I began concurrent investigations into Sarbanand Farms in August 2017 after Honesto Silva Ibarra, a farm worker, became ill at a worksite, was hospitalized and later died. 

Three L&I teams looked into workplace safety, pesticide concerns, and employment standards, which covers issues like wages, hours worked, and rest and meal breaks.

Late meals and missed breaks significant issues

Today, L&I met with Sarbanand Farms representatives and briefed them on the findings of the comprehensive investigations. L&I is citing the company for violations related to late or missed rest breaks and meal periods for hundreds of workers.

In connection with the violations, Sarbanand is facing a penalty of approximately $149,800. About half of that fine, $73,000, is from L&I, and the rest is assessed by the Whatcom County District Court where the civil infraction is filed.

"These violations are serious. Meal and rest breaks are especially important for farm workers," said Elizabeth Smith, assistant director of L&I Fraud Prevention and Labor Standards, which oversees investigations of this type. "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."

Safety and health investigations find no violations

L&I also conducted a simultaneous investigation into safety at the workplace, in connection with Silva Ibarra's death. The agency understands the concerns when an unexpected death occurs, and strives to find out if it's work-related.

An autopsy conducted by the King County Medical Examiner's Office determined the death was from natural causes, and not related to occupational issues. L&I shared information and discussed the case with the medical examiner.

Agency investigators interviewed members of Silva Ibarra's work crew, a family member who was with him the day he fell ill, roommates, his wife (by telephone), and work supervisors, among others.

Investigators spent three days at the worksite looking into the availability of drinking water, shade, training and restroom facilities. The agency also conducted a third investigation focused solely on pesticide use and exposure to workers. Based on the information gathered during the inspections, no workplace safety or health violations were found.

All told, seven L&I investigators and agents, many of them bilingual, were part of the investigation. Staff interviewed numerous workers, supervisors and others in connection with the Sarbanand Farms worksite. They also reviewed several days of farm records for details about hours worked and meal and rest breaks.

A 10-minute paid break is required in every four hours worked. A 30-minute meal period (unpaid) is required for anyone working five or more hours. Under the law, a second meal period is required for someone working more than 11 hours a day.

Sarbanand Farms informed the department that it has corrected the violations. L&I Employment Standards agents will conduct a follow-up inspection to make sure the corrections are still in place and workers are receiving appropriate meal periods and rest breaks.

Labor & Industries investigates all worker rights complaints it receives, as required by state law. Workers can file a complaint online or by calling 1-866-219-7321.

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For media information: Tim Church, L&I Public Affairs, 360-902-5673.

Connect with L&I: Facebook (facebook.com/laborandindustries) and Twitter (twitter.com/lniwa)

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