After 11 years of seasonal work at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County, Wash., Mexican guest worker Ernesto Dimas was accustomed to the rigors of the cherry harvest.
He would rise long before dawn, then start picking during the early morning hours, when the fruit was still cool and would not be damaged by handling during the heat of the day.
This year, there was a new hardship. He and many of his colleagues grew ill with some of the symptoms of COVID-19. They were congested. Some had fevers that spiked in the evening. And in the orchards, as they labored, the signs of the sickness were hard to ignore.
"You could hear people coughing everywhere," Dimas said in an interview from his home in Mexico.
Dimas is one of numerous former Gebbers Farms workers who cut their harvest season short this summer and went home due to concerns about COVID-19. The Seattle Times spoke with three of them.
All three spoke of a disturbing breakdown in oversight amid a growing outbreak of illness in their Okanogan County camp, where one of their friends — Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon — died in early July. Rincon's death spurred an investigation of work conditions at Gebbers Farms by the state Department of Labor & Industries that now includes the circumstances surrounding the July 31 death of a second worker, Earl Edwards, who was from Jamaica.
In the Okanogan County camp where the guest workers resided, safety gaps described by the three Mexican workers included problems with a daily temperature check intended to identify sick people.
A supervisor who did that task grew ill and passed the job to a guest worker, who — even when someone's temperature was high — would often record a normal temperature instead, according to Dimas and the other two workers who spoke with the Seattle Times.
"We would say, 'Give us a chance. We are here to work,' and he would write down a different temperature," Dimas said.
In an August statement, company spokesperson Amy Philpott said Gebbers Farms officials aren't aware of anyone who is incorrectly recording daily temperature. "If this was happening, it is unacceptable, we do not in any way condone it, and we want to know about it," she said.
For the workers interviewed by the Seattle Times, Rincon's death stripped them of their drive to stick with the harvest. They all went home in July, far short of the November end of their six-month contracts.
Fellow workers said Rincon grew sick earlier in the summer but took medicine and managed to keep working in the orchards until July 7, when he felt weak and was transferred to an isolation camp.
His condition worsened July 8, so workers at that isolation camp called an ambulance, but he died by the end of the day, according to his brother-in-law, Juan Celin Guerrero Camacho.
Gebbers Farms, which is family owned, is one of the largest orchard operations in eastern Washington, employing some 4,500 workers, including more than 2,000 guest workers.
Company officials said they developed extensive protocols to reduce the risks of COVID-19 spread, including an initial five-day quarantine of guest workers upon their arrival, mandatory wearing of masks while working, and daily cleaning and sanitizing of worker housing.
As of late July, 120 Gebbers Farms workers had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Another 156 employees showed symptoms and were quarantined for a time, according to the company.
The three former workers interviewed by the Seattle Times all said they had worked at Gebbers in previous years and the jobs were a welcome source of cash. In six months, Dimas said it was possible to earn $15,000.