COVID-19 safety violations result in large fine for Yakima area fruit company

January 27, 2021

COWICHE – A Yakima area fruit grower and processor has been fined more than $150,000 by the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) for violating COVID-19 workplace requirements designed to help keep workers safe on the job.

This week, L&I notified Evans Fruit Co., Inc. it’s being cited for two willful serious violations for not following workplace COVID-19 mask and social distancing requirements. It’s the third time in recent months that the company has been cited for COVID safety and health violations.

The violations are willful in that the company knew employees were required to wear masks and the employer knowingly did not enforce it. Because the violations are considered willful, the penalty is 10 times larger. The violations are deemed serious due to the risk of serious illness or death from exposure to COVID-19.

Complaint prompts inspection
L&I opened the latest inspection Oct. 14, 2020 after receiving an anonymous complaint about several safety and health issues at the Cowiche worksite, including a lack of social distancing.

While inspecting the Evans fruit-packing warehouse, an L&I investigator observed numerous workers in different areas not socially distanced or without physical barriers between them. There were also several workers in the warehouse and the office who were not wearing masks as required. The Evans Fruit Co. safety manager said he would not require any worker to wear a mask.

As a result, L&I issued an Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint (OIR) requiring immediate COVID-19 safety and health rule compliance. The company came into compliance within a half-hour of receiving the notice.

Under the governor’s proclamation, employees are required to wear masks and maintain a distance of six feet apart or have physical barriers in place to prevent the potential transmission of the coronavirus.

Two previous inspections uncover similar COVID safety issues
Evans Fruit Co. was fined $6,600 after two inspections at separate fruit packing locations last summer, where social distancing and masking violations were found. The company told L&I the masks made fruit packers hot to the point they were passing out.

“COVID-19 is a serious workplace hazard and we expect employers to treat it that way,” said Craig Blackwood, acting assistant director for L&Is Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

“Mask and distancing requirements are not voluntary,” added Blackwood. “They are meant to prevent the spread of COVID in the workplace, but they won’t work if they’re not used. Evans Fruit Company’s blatant disregard for the rules threatens employee health and safety.”

In 2020, L&I inspected 422 agriculture businesses and found 517 violations, 204 of those being serious. Not following COVID-19 protocols made up 60 percent of the violations.

Penalties and appeal rights
Evans Fruit Co. has 15 working days to appeal the violations and the $156,000 penalty. They have appealed the two previous citations. Fines paid as a result of a citation go into the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, helping workers and families of those who have died on the job.