Blueberry fields at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County.
Blueberry fields at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County. steven hsieh

A week after two prominent law firms sued over working conditions at a Western Washington farm, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries announced Thursday it will charge the farm nearly $150,000 in fines. L&I says Sarbanand Farms, located near Sumas and the Canadian border, violated laws regarding employee breaks and meals. The penalty is the largest L&I has ever assessed for agricultural meal and rest break violations, according to the department.

Last week, Columbia Legal Services announced a lawsuit against Sarbanand Farms and its California-based parent company Munger Brothers. The suit alleges that the company required immigrant laborers to work "unless they were on their death bed," threatened them with deportation, and provided unsubstantial meals.

Last summer, about 70 workers at Sarbanand Farms went on strike after one of their coworkers, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was hospitalized. Silva Ibarra later died at Harborview Medical Center. The company fired the workers who went on strike.

State investigators began looking into working conditions at the farm after Silva Ibarra's death. The fine from L&I stems from violations regarding meal and rest breaks, not linking those working conditions to Silva Ibarra's death.

After interviewing workers and supervisors and reviewing farm records, L&I investigators found that that the company missed rest breaks and offered meal breaks too late "for hundreds of workers." Workplace regulations require a 10-minute paid break for every four hours worked, a 30-minute unpaid meal break for anyone working five hours or more, and another meal break for anyone working 11 hours a day.

The state did not issue any violations related to safety, health, or Silva Ibarra's death. An autopsy of Silva Ibarra's death by the King County Medical Examiner found that his death was due to natural causes, not occupational issues, according to L&I. L&I investigators looked into pesticide use and "the availability of drinking water, shade, training and restroom facilities." They also interviewed Silva Ibarra's family members and coworkers, but found no safety and health violations at Sarbanand Farms.

In total, L&I and Whatcom County District Court are fining Sarbanand Farms $149,800. In a statement, L&I's assistant director of fraud prevention and labor standards Elizabeth Smith called the violations "serious."

"Meal and rest breaks are especially important for farm workers," Smith said. "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."

The department briefed the company on the violations Thursday. According to L&I, Sarbanand Farms claims it has corrected the violations. L&I investigators will follow up. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. UPDATE: In a statement to media, Sarbanand Farms said it can now request a court hearing to "further review the findings" regarding rest and meal break violations and is "reviewing its legal options." The statement said the L&I investigation "exonerated the company" in Silva Ibarra's death.