Health Dept.: Orchard followed COVID protocols despite complaints
“Though these complaints surface off and on, nothing from our standpoint … led us to believe that people were not adhering to the appropriate isolation and quarantine policies … From our standpoint, we felt like things have gone well and right now, it’s really a contained outbreak.”
— Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine
A Shoreham apple orchard linked to a recent COVID-19 outbreak was the subject of five public health complaints, including several about COVID protocol.
The Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or VOSHA, received five complaints from either an employee or customer at Champlain Orchards between July and October, according to records obtained by VTDigger. The anonymous complaints alleged that workers weren’t following quarantine rules, weren’t wearing masks, and had unsafe working and living conditions.
Less than a week after the last complaint, 27 workers tested positive for the coronavirus in early October, leading the orchard to close its doors for about a week. The workers had traveled from Jamaica on an H2A work visa for temporary agricultural work.
Three complaints remain open for investigation.
“A lot of farmers have reached out to us and said this could have happened to any farm,” said Andrea Scott, who owns Champlain Orchards with her husband, Bill Suhr. “We’ve kept this completely contained to one of our crews. We feel really good about that.
“Of course there’s room for improvement,” she said of the COVID safety efforts. “We can all do a better job.”
Health Commissioner Mark Levine announced last Friday that the virus is no longer spreading at the orchard. Farm owners appeared to have followed state protocol, Levine said in an interview.
“The word I had as recently as of two days ago is that, though these complaints surface off and on, nothing from our standpoint … led us to believe that people were not adhering to the appropriate isolation and quarantine policies,” Levine said. Some complaints may be valid, others less so, he said. “But all I know is from our standpoint, we felt like things have gone well and right now, it’s really a contained outbreak.”
As of last Saturday, the orchards were fully open for business, Suhr said. An employee who had been hospitalized at Porter Medical Center due to COVID was released, and the orchard workers had completed all necessary COVID testing, Suhr reported in a newsletter sent Tuesday to patrons.
The orchard had also received a flood of local donations, including food from Intervale farmers in Burlington, fresh ginger, and chicken from Misty Knoll farms, Scott said. The state also agreed to cover the cost of workers’ food while in quarantine, at a price of $15 per day per worker.
The health department has not identified the source of the spread, but employees and customers said repeatedly in complaints to VOSHA that workers weren’t wearing masks or following protocol.
On July 27, an unnamed employee said the company had brought people from other states for interviews without quarantining. Suhr said one of the interviewees had quarantined, and one had traveled to Vermont alone in their own car from counties in the “green zone” and were not required to quarantine.
On Sept. 9, an anonymous employee reported that Jamaican workers had arrived and weren’t wearing masks or quarantining. The next day, a similar VOSHA complaint arrived, noting the lack of masks and expressing frustration that employees weren’t provided “COVID pay” or a salary during quarantine.
Bailey Thibault, VOSHA compliance and whistleblower supervisor, attributed the latter complaint to a “disgruntled employee,” according to records obtained by VTDigger.
Department of Labor spokesperson Kyle Thweatt said officials don’t know whether the complaints had been filed by multiple individuals or a single individual, since they’re completely anonymous.
The following week, a person who said they were a customer reported to the state that employees weren’t wearing masks, and it didn’t look like the farm store was being adequately sanitized. On Oct. 1, a former employee complained that a freezer and “bakery/packing line” were not sanitary, and also complained about lack of mask use, and said housing for workers was inadequate.
“The owner doesn’t care about COVID or about the safety of his employees,” the former worker wrote.
The first two complaints, from July 27 and Sept. 9, were closed — meaning that VOSHA and the employer agreed on a satisfactory solution, Thweatt said. It “very often has nothing to do with whether or not an employer is at fault.”
Investigation is continuing in two cases, Thweatt confirmed; the three September complaints were combined into a single investigation.
Scott, the orchard owner, said the orchard had asked — but not forced — its 55 H2A workers to wear masks and to maintain social distancing. The orchard plans to upgrade worker housing, which is rented from a neighbor down the road.
She said the orchard treats workers well — it pays $4 over minimum wage of $10.78, and is subject to annual state inspections. Many workers return year after year, Scott said. She attributed the criticism, in part, to misunderstandings about the H2A program. The farm does post positions locally for the seasonal jobs.
“To find 55 people willing and able to go, who know what to do, it’s really hard, probably impossible,” Scott said of a completely local workforce. “We are completely dependent on this system. We feel really strongly about treating these people with respect; they’re a big part of our community.”
State officials say Champlain Orchards followed state protocol.
Agricultural employees such as the Jamaican workers who arrived in mid-September are considered essential workers, and aren’t required to quarantine — though a two-week separation period is “best practice,” said Steve Collier, special counsel for the Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets.
“If there’s a crop that needs to be harvested, it needs to be harvested or we won’t have the food,” Collier said. Besides, he added, “in terms of enforcing or requiring a quarantine for essential workers, that would create an untenable logjam.”
According to Suhr and Scott, the employees lived and worked outside together for two weeks, meeting the definition of quarantine.
In the future, though, Levine said they’d try to test workers that moved to Vermont upon arrival and after a week. That may help prevent spread of the virus in the future.
Levine and Collier praised Suhr and Scott for their COVID safety efforts, and said there’s little that could have been done differently.
“If someone becomes infected, that’s a pretty difficult situation to address before you know a person has it. The orchard was adhering to protocol and adhering to screenings,” Collier said. “There’s no perfect way to address this problem.”
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