L&I issues $650K in fines after ag worker death in East Wenatchee

A blue sign along a driveway leading to a big building.

The headquarters of the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries in Tumwater. (Lizz Giordano/Cascade PBS)

Washington State Department of Labor & Industries fined two central Washington companies a combined $650,000, the agency announced Wednesday, after a fruit storage worker died from asphyxiation inside a controlled-atmosphere room in October.

The worker for Pace International LLC was found unresponsive after spraying apples in a Stemilt Growers’ storage room in East Wenatchee in which the oxygen had been removed to help preserve the fruit. 

In an investigation, L&I found the worker from Pace entered the room without a safety monitor as required by law. A Stemilt employee also failed to warn the worker that his oxygen monitor alarm had sounded near the entry to the storage room, indicating the room lacked sufficient oxygen, according to L&I.

“Both companies own a piece of this preventable tragedy,” Craig Blackwood, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said in a news release, adding, “It’s a wonder that Pace hasn’t had a worker die before now. They’ve been gambling with workers’ lives for a long time and they finally lost.”

L&I also discovered Pace International’s training handbook allowed workers to enter controlled-atmosphere rooms with an oxygen level of just 17.5% despite state regulations requiring oxygen levels to be at 19.5% or higher.

L&I fined Pace $574,000 and Stemilt $76,300. Pace has appealed. The agency also placed Pace on its severe violator list for the eight willful and two serious violations the agency issued. 

The agency created the Severe Violator Enforcement Program to increase monitoring of companies that are “resistant or indifferent” to safety rules. A recent Cascade PBS analysis of L&I records found more than a third of severe violator companies had not received required follow-up inspections. 

Stemilt was also fined $2,700 in 2022 after two employees worked in a room that lacked sufficient oxygen without the use of oxygen monitors. 

UW President Cauce calls for ceasefire and end to campus protest

University police walk past graffitti in the UW campus

University police walk through the UW campus on Sunday, May 12, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce on Wednesday voiced her support for a ceasefire in Gaza while strongly urging the students protesting on the Seattle campus to take down their tents and dialogue.

In an email to UW students, staff, faculty and academic personnel, Cauce reiterated her support of free speech and peaceful protest. She told the student newspaper, The Daily, that she has no plans to sweep the tent encampment on the UW Quad, as some other universities have. She believes dialogue is going to accomplish more than protest, which began more than two weeks ago and now has escalated to spray-painted graffiti on buildings all over campus.

“We believe that engaging in dialogue is the most productive path to a resolution that can see the encampment voluntarily depart,” Cauce wrote. “Indeed, even before the encampment started, we were meeting with a cross section of students who are deeply moved by the humanitarian crisis.”

Among the discussions, which Cauce described as cordial, was a lesson on how the university invests its endowment fund. A member of the UW Investment Management Company met with some of the protesters and let them know that the university has no direct investments in Boeing or weapons manufacturers, Cauce wrote in her email.

She called some of the new graffiti on buildings all over campus both antisemitic and violent, “creating an unwelcome and fearful environment for many students, faculty and staff, especially those who are Jewish.” Cauce said the graffiti appears to be an effort to compel the University to agree to the protesters’ demands, which she said have expanded beyond the initial pleas for the University to cut ties with Israel and Boeing.

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war have continually reaffirmed their commitment to remain on the Quad until their demands are met, and say they have no plans to disassemble the encampment.

The King County Council greenlit a proposal that will boost the minimum wage in unincorporated King County to $20.29 an hour, one of the highest in the country.

Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Rod Dembowski, Teresa Mosqueda and Jorge L. Barón co-sponsored the measure, which aims to lift wages in unincorporated areas to match those of nearby cities. For example, the current minimum wage is $16.28 an hour in Skyway, a county neighborhood next to the city of Tukwila, which has a minimum wage of $20.29. Seattle’s minimum wage is $19.97 per hour and the state’s is $16.28. 

This ordinance impacts only unincorporated areas of King County, and would not include cities like Redmond or Bellevue that abide by the state’s minimum wage, or cities like Renton, where voters recently set a city minimum wage of $20.29, which starts in July.

The proposal, which would also need a signature from King County Executive Dow Constantine, would take effect on Jan. 1, 2025, and could be subject to increase based on inflation at that time. 

There would be exceptions for small businesses with lower revenues and fewer employees. Businesses with 15 or fewer employees and an annual gross revenue of less than $2 million would be allowed to pay employees $17.29 an hour, $3 less than the proposed legislation. This difference would decrease annually by 50 cents until there is no difference in 2030. 

Businesses with 15 or fewer workers but have an annual gross revenue of $2 million or greater, and businesses with more than 15 but fewer than 500 employees, would have an hourly minimum wage of $18.29. This difference would decrease annually by $1 until there is no difference in 2026. 

Washington AG subpoenas Seattle Archdiocese for sex abuse records

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a previous news conference.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a previous news conference. (Matt. M. McKnight/Cascade PBS)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a subpoena to try to force the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese to turn over records on suspected sexual abuse, he announced Thursday.

In July 2023, the Attorney General’s Office requested massive amounts of information from the archdioceses of Seattle, Yakima and Spokane, so it could map the extent and details of sexual-abuse incidents, the number of priests involved and the transfers of suspected priests from assignment to assignment. So far the three archdioceses have not provided the requested information, Ferguson said.

“We need a public accounting of childhood abuse,” Ferguson said.

Consequently, the Attorney General’s Office filed the subpoena in King County Superior Court, requesting a May 22 hearing. The three archdioceses share a common trust fund that is used to compensate victims of sexual abuse, and Ferguson wants access to those records as well.

In a written statement, the Archdiocese of Seattle said it had been generally cooperating with the AG’s office without specifically addressing the breadth of the information sought in the attorney general’s requests and subpoena.

“Sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults is an issue the Archdiocese of Seattle takes very seriously and has been proactively addressing for more than 40 years,” the statement said, noting that the church has taken many steps toward preventing abuse, including reporting abuse, supporting victims and their families and publicizing their actions. “We have a good understanding of the content of our files and we have no concern about sharing them with the Attorney General lawfully and fairly,” the statement said.

Michael Pfau, a Seattle attorney whose firm specializes in abuse cases, estimated that over the past 23 years his firm has represented roughly 90 sex-abuse victims in the Spokane Archdiocese, fewer in the Yakima Archdiocese and “hundreds” in the Seattle Archdiocese. His firm has successfully obtained records from the archdioceses, but he noted that the Attorney General’s Office’s requests are much broader than asking for a specific file on a specific person.

Lifelong Catholic Mary Dispenza, 84, of Bellevue, attended Thursday’s press conference. As an elementary-school girl in the Los Angeles area, she was sexually abused by a priest. 

“Even at the age of 7, I knew it was wrong. … In my own way, I felt ashamed.” She “buried” those memories until she was 52 — even during a 15-year period as a nun. “I didn’t share with anybody, but I talked to God,” she said. 

“All the dioceses in the world need to become transparent. … There is no justice without truth-telling,” Dispenza said. 

Ferguson, also a lifelong Catholic, said: “I don’t speak much about my faith. … But what the church is doing is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. … The church needs to be transparent about what happened.”

The attorney general’s office can instigate only civil actions in Washington, not criminal actions. Whenever the AG’s office handles criminal cases, it does so at the request of a county prosecuting attorney’s office. 

More students experiencing homelessness in Washington

Students board the bus to Hamilton International Middle School

Students board the bus to Hamilton International Middle School on the first day of school on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

The number of students experiencing homelessness in Washington has grown by about 15% compared to the school year when the pandemic began, according to new data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

OSPI reports 42,436 students were homeless or had insecure housing during the 2022-23 school year compared to 36,996 during the 2019-2020 school year, while the total population of students enrolled in public school decreased during that time.

The every-other-year report to the Legislature explains that the number of homeless students reported in the past few school years may have decreased during the pandemic because school districts had difficulty identifying and serving those students.

The report breaks down the homeless student population by ethnicity, and notes that while 3.8% of all public school students statewide have experienced homelessness, the percentages are greater among Native Hawaii and Pacific Islander students (11.8%), Black or African American students (7.4%), Native American or Alaskan Native students (7.2%) and Hispanic or Latino students (5.4%).

The federal definition for students who are entitled to special services related to homelessness is different from the generally accepted definition of what it means to be unhoused. This report follows this broader definition and offers some detail about the students’ living situations.

About 76% of homeless students are “doubled-up” or sharing the housing of other people due to the loss of their housing, economic hardship or a similar reason. Another 6.4% are living in hotels or motels, 10.9% live in temporary shelters and 6.7% are unsheltered or living in a car, campground, abandoned building or substandard housing.

OSPI also reports that more students experiencing homelessness fail to graduate than the general student population, more are reported as truant and have poorer attendance overall and more were suspended or expelled from school. 

WA Supreme Court upholds temporary ban on high-capacity magazines

a wall of guns for sale

Guns for rent at the Bellevue Indoor Gun Range on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

On Thursday morning, Washington Supreme Court Commissioner Michael Johnston issued a ruling upholding a temporary statewide ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines for guns.

Earlier this month, Cowlitz County Superior Court judge Gary Bashor ruled that the state Legislature’s 2022 law banning high-capacity magazines is unconstitutional. Commissioner Johnston issued an emergency stay immediately following Bashor’s ruling to temporarily keep the state ban in place.

Johnston’s April 25 ruling extends the temporary ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines while the case makes its way through the appeals process.

In September 2023, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Gator’s Custom Guns in Kelso. The suit alleged the store had offered more than 11,400 high-capacity magazines for sale since the state ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds went into effect in July 2022.

After Bashor issued his ruling overturning the ban on April 8, Ferguson successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court for an emergency stay, arguing the law was both constitutional and critical for addressing mass shootings. Limited-capacity magazines force shooters to stop and reload more frequently, giving people time to escape or disarm the shooter, he argued.

In the ruling today upholding that emergency stay, Johnston emphasized the use of high-capacity magazines in mass shootings. He wrote, “The State contends there is an unacceptable public safety risk if I do not impose a stay and the trade in [high-capacity magazines] resumes.”

The brief continues, “It is all but certain mass shootings will occur in Washington. This legislation will not necessarily prevent them from happening, but it will increase potential victims’ chances of survival. By declaring the statute unconstitutional and enjoining its enforcement, the superior court deprives Washington’s citizens of needed protection enacted by their elected representatives.”

Johnston also cited the rush to buy high-capacity magazines in the 90 or so minutes between Bashor’s ruling and Johnston’s issue of an emergency stay.

Today’s ruling states that Gator’s Guns boasted on social media that they sold high-capacity magazines to about 250 customers in that brief window on April 8.

King County was awarded a $6 million grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to create more than 400 electric-vehicle charging ports throughout the county. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the grant on Tuesday, and says this is part of the county’s mission to expand its zero-emission vehicles. 

King County applied for this grant in a joint effort with 20 partners around the region – for example, community centers, multifamily housing, retail businesses – places where these charging stations will be installed. The charging grant was made possible through the state’s cap-and-invest program, Climate Commitment Act

These charging ports will be available to the public in 55 locations, including nine King County charging sites, 13 multifamily residential buildings and 16 other locations like Metro bus bases. 

Installation could begin in three months in areas that already have charging stations, and take longer for areas that do not, said Ross Freeman, King County Fleet Electrification and Electric Vehicle Infrastructure planner. 

King County, along with other public agencies, have been moving toward lowering carbon emissions from vehicles. King County Metro Transit has a combination of diesel and hybrid vehicles, but they’re making the move to fully battery-operated buses, Freeman said. The county recently created a fully electric base for 120 zero-emission buses. 

Freeman said about 10% of King County support vehicles are electric. These vehicles perform operation check-ups or service locations. About 5% of other vehicles are fully electric, but, Freeman said, a majority of county vehicles are hybrid. 

Earlier this year, the state Department of Commerce announced that it will spend $85 million to expand access to electric vehicle charging throughout the state, including in Yakima, Vancouver and Spokane.

U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear challenge to WA Voting Rights Act

A person votes at a polling place that says "vote"

Jordan Chavez fills out a new ballot at the Yakima County Elections office on Thursday, July 28, 2022. This was Chavez’s first time voting. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a state ruling that rejected a challenge to the Washington Voting Rights Act, upholding the constitutionality of the law.

The decision ends James Gimenez’ constitutional challenge of the state voting rights act. Gimenez, a Latino voter, claimed that three other Latino voters who sued Franklin County for suppressing their voting rights did not have standing because the WVRA provides protections for minority groups, and Latinos are the numerical majority in Franklin County.

Gimenez filed a motion to dismiss the case, then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that the state’s voting rights act did not equally protect all races that end up in the minority.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled against Gimenez last year, stating that the three Latino voters could sue the county because the Washington Voting Rights Act indeed protects all Washington voters from discrimination on the basis of race, color and language minority.

The original case was concluded two years ago, after the three voters, along with the League of United Latin American Citizens, settled with Franklin County in May 2022. As part of that settlement, commissioners will now be elected in a district-based system for both the primary and general elections.  

The state passed the Washington Voting Rights Act in 2018, with the intention of streamlining voting rights act enforcement and outlining steps to address remedies through resolution instead of through the courts.

A dozen Washington school districts were recognized with the first-ever Purple Star Awards earlier this month for their support of active-duty military families. The state Legislature approved the program last year to recognize school districts that demonstrated a commitment to addressing the needs of students in families serving in the military. 

The school districts are 

  • Bremerton School District
  • Central Kitsap School District
  • Cheney School District
  • Clover Park School District
  • Medical Lake School District
  • North Mason School District
  • North Thurston Public Schools
  • Oak Harbor Public Schools
  • Peninsula School District
  • Steilacoom Historical School District
  • Sumner-Bonney Lake School District
  • Yelm Community Schools

To receive the award, school districts need to provide tools and support for students of active-duty military families in their school through tending to the social and emotional barriers students face when their parents are deployed or when they relocate and transfer to a different school. It is also a requirement for the district to host a military recognition event to demonstrate a military-friendly culture or to publicize the district’s support for active-duty military families. 

These school districts work with the Interstate Compact Council, which helps children of military personnel when moving from different schools. One example of this is giving their teachers training on how to better serve their students from active-duty military families. 

Washington has 39,860 children of active-duty military and 19,411 children of National Guard members and reservists, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington Association of School Administrators jointly administer the designation, which will be in place for the districts for two years.  

Help Washington State University name its new apple

sliced apples sit next to a ruler

Washington State University recently launched a contest to name WA 64, an apple variety that is a hybrid of Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink. The variety, developed by WSU’s apple breeding program, is expected in grocery stores in 2029. (Photo courtesy of WSU)

Washington State University plans to launch its new apple variety in a few years, but is asking the public now for possible names. The university launched an online survey and contest seeking suggestions on what to name the apple currently known as WA 64. The deadline to enter is May 5.

It will be WSU’s second new apple launch in a decade, after the 2019 debut of Cosmic Crisp

WA 64, in the works for more than 20 years, is a hybrid of Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink, a variety better known by its trademark name, Pink Lady. WSU is in the process of selecting a commercial partner who will manage the rollout of the apple to Washington growers and nurseries. Trees are expected to be widely available to growers by 2026, and the apple is expected to appear in grocery shows by 2029, according to a WSU news release

Cosmic Crisp was also developed through WSU’s apple breeding program. Cosmic Crisp, a crossbreed of Enterprise and Honeycrisp grown exclusively in Washington, is among the top 10 best-selling apple varieties in the U.S. by sales and volume, according to WSU, citing Nielsen data. 

WSU pursued further development of WA 64 because it showed good eating and storage quality. Developers describe WA 64 as crisper and juicier than Cripps Pink and slightly less crisp and juicy than Honeycrisp, providing sweetness and acidity that falls between the two varieties.

The contest is open to U.S. residents 18 and older. Besides suggesting a name for WA 64, participants will also answer several questions, including how they came up with their suggested name and about their fresh apple purchasing habits. The winner chosen will receive a prize package that includes a variety of WSU items, including a gift box of WA64s and Cougar Gold, the university’s famed canned cheese.