OSHA

A hotel worker alleged that the employer didn’t enforce wearing masks and social distancing.

A restaurant employee claimed to be exposed to COVID-19 because protective practices and equipment weren’t used in the kitchen.

At a senior living facility, an employee alleged workers were forced to use “visibly soiled reusable gowns” previously worn by others.

These are among 17 complaints filed by El Paso County workers this year with the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The complaints alleged risks to which employers subjected their workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That handful of complaints is part of roughly 10,000 filed with OSHA nationwide from Feb. 1 through Sept. 16 that are connected to the coronavirus, OSHA reports. Of those, 8,239 cases have been closed, allowing some information to be made publicly available. Details of pending complaints aren’t disclosed.

According to OSHA records, roughly 2 percent of closed complaints led to inspections, and the agency had issued only 24 citations as of mid-September.

One of those was issued Sept. 11 to the JBS USA-owned beef packing plant in Greeley where six workers died of COVID-19 and hundreds were infected, according to the Associated Press. OSHA imposed a $15,615 fine, the maximum allowed, for failing to adequately protect workers. JBS disputed the finding, saying a standard didn’t exist in March.

None of the 17 complaints filed by El Paso County workers drew inspections, which a local union representative said is less a reflection of solid business practices by local companies than it is of workers not being informed of how to file complaints.

“I wish I could say the employees are being taken care of in El Paso County,” said Brian Bradley, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 113. “But that is not the case. I honestly believe it’s a lack of education and understanding of what their rights are.”

OSHA counters that the agency responds to and investigates all complaints and conducts on-site inspections when warranted, though the agency admitted it must “prioritize resources.”

CASE CLOSED?

The complaints appearing on OSHA’s “closed” complaint list include some of the biggest corporate names in America: Amazon, Tyson Foods, Starbucks, Tesla and Boeing.

It’s also worth noting that four of the top six states for number of inspections of COVID-related complaints rank in the top 10 for having the strongest unions, according to SmartAsset, a financial planning website. Those include Washington, California, New York and Oregon.

Inspections ranged from a New Jersey hospital worker’s charge that they were forced to treat COVID patients without wearing personal protective equipment to a Minnesota strip bar’s not requiring social distancing during lap dances.

In El Paso County, complaints were filed against several health facilities:

St. Francis Medical Center (an employee wasn’t properly trained to use a respirator), and Penrose St. Francis Health Services (lack of personal protective equipment, employees reusing gowns and inoperable respirators).

Penrose-St. Francis Health Services spokesperson Andrea Sinclair said the health system welcomes regulatory oversight and supports its employees’ right to submit complaints.

After OSHA consulted with Penrose-St. Francis about the complaints, “Our team provided answers to a detailed list of specific questions, and both cases were closed without further review,” Sinclair said. “Our team’s health and safety are at the heart of everything, and we’ve kept this at the forefront when making every decision throughout the pandemic.”

•UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central (use of protective masks in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit wasn’t enforced).

UCHealth Memorial spokesperson Cary Vogrin echoed Sinclair’s comments, saying employee and patient safety is a top priority. In fact, she said, employees are encouraged and expected to report noncompliance concerns to their supervisor, the compliance department or through an anonymous hotline.

After UCHealth addressed the complaint, she said, “OSHA did not deem it necessary to conduct an on-site visit, and there were no penalties involved.” She also noted that UCHealth was among the first health care providers in the state to require that masks be worn in all patient interactions on March 14.

•Cedar Springs Hospital (employees allegedly were assigned to work after providing a note from a primary health care provider saying they exhibited symptoms of potentially infectious respiratory diseases).

Cedar Springs didn’t address the specific complaint, but said officials “closely follow the most up-to-date guidance and precautions from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].” 

In addition, employees at MedEvals of Colorado alleged return-to-work guidelines weren’t being followed, and an employee of Qwik Care MD claimed workers weren’t given supplies and time to adequately sanitize surfaces. A complaint against Talecris Plasma Resources alleged the lack of “an effective infection control program where employees are potentially exposed to patients or coworkers with COVID-19.”

Urban Egg on South Tejon Street and Fargo’s Pizza, as well as the King Soopers store at 6030 Stetson Hills Blvd. faced complaints alleging not requiring masks and not having enhanced hygiene plans. In addition, Mikron Manufacturing Inc., DMS Building Components Inc., and senior living facility Liberty Heights, faced similar complaints, with a Liberty worker saying employees had to use “visibly soiled reusable gowns ... not laundered prior to being reused or shared between employees.”

Those businesses didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Similar complaints were filed against Hotel Eleganté, Sunshine House day care and preschool and goPuff food delivery service.

Sunshine House responded with a two-page explanation of steps taken to protect employees, children and their families.

Company spokesperson Barbra Richardson said in a statement that OSHA contacted the school the same day it received the complaint, May 27, and dismissed the claim after receiving Sunshine House’s outline of enhanced precautions, along with “supporting documentation and photos.”

“Every Sunshine House follows our strict health, safety and disinfection guidelines based on recommendations from the CDC, state and local officials, and departments of health to ensure we maintain a safe and healthy environment,” she said.

Hotel Eleganté received a call from OSHA May 26 about a complaint received that day regarding failure to use face masks and socially distance.

General manager Ed Okvath said the complaint came as the hotel was gradually reopening for business. After he submitted a written presentation to OSHA, the agency “determined we were doing everything we needed to,” and that no physical inspection was needed, he said.

Okvath also notes that only two employees have tested positive, and contact tracing found they were infected off the property. No guests have tested positive to his knowledge, he said.

Another senior living site, Palisades at Broadmoor Park, was accused of not enforcing social distancing and not providing an employee with PPE.

Palisades spokesperson Constance Sablan said the complaint was unfounded.

“From the very beginning of the onslaught of the pandemic,” she said, “we have been providing all our employees with proper PPE, masks, gloves, gowns if warranted. And we have kept a supply on inventory to make sure they have what they need when they need it.”

Noting the facility adopted protocols to protect residents and employees, Sablan said that Palisades hasn’t had a single positive case of COVID so far.

She also defended OSHA. “As was the case here for the Palisades,” she said in an email, “for many of the complaints filed, OSHA completed a full investigation and determined there is no legitimacy to the underlying claim and that effective health and safety measures are in place, resulting in a swift closure of its investigation.”

Food delivery service goPuff also had a complaint alleging lack of PPE and social distancing, but company spokesperson Liz Romaine said in an email that goPuff took specific steps to keep its employees safe, including training, posting informational posters, checking temperatures of personnel and providing PPE.

NOT SURPRISED

Bradley, with IBEW Local 113, isn’t surprised that OSHA hasn’t inspected the site of many COVID complaints, noting the citations came only after the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations sought a court action in May to force OSHA to adopt emergency standards to protect American workers.

An OSHA spokesperson said in an email that the agency on May 19 adopted an “Updated Interim Enforcement Response Plan for Coronavirus Disease 2019,” which prioritizes for inspection fatalities and imminent danger exposures related to COVID-19.

That guidance also states, “Particular attention for on-site inspections will be given to high-risk workplaces, such as hospitals and other healthcare providers treating patients with COVID-19, as well as workplaces, with high numbers of complaints or known COVID-19 cases.”

OSHA stated that complaints that allege “unprotected exposures to COVID-19 for workers with a high/very high risk of transmission, should warrant an on-site or remote inspection.”

But OSHA area directors must “prioritize resources and consider all relevant factors, such as whether the complainant alleges inadequate PPE due to supply issues, in determining whether to perform an investigation instead of an on-site inspection,” OSHA said.

It further stated that while only 24 citations had been issued as of Sept. 15, OSHA has six months to complete inspections.

“OSHA inspections have helped to ensure the protection of more than 607,000 workers from COVID-19 since February 1, 2020,” OSHA said.

But Bradley doubts the agency protects employees through vigorous investigations and inspections.

“There’s no doubt in my mind OSHA is turning a blind eye [to complaints regarding COVID exposure],” Bradley said. “Our current administration has defunded it so bad, they don’t have enough inspectors to get out there and do their jobs.” (Forbes.com reports that OSHA has the lowest level of inspections in its 50-year history under the Trump administration.)

Bradley also points to actions taken that undermine laws designed to protect employees and their wages. In addition, OSHA has failed to issue an emergency temporary standard for protecting workers from the COVID pandemic, he said.

Trump appointee Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who took office a year ago, is the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and has a history of fighting labor laws on behalf of big business and working to undo worker and consumer protections, Vox.com reported.

That’s why Bradley said workers should assert their rights. “We educate our members that you’ve gotta look out for yourself and use your voice, and if you don’t, then bad things are going to happen,” he said. “We’ll take on these employers. Employers are our partners, but they’re not always going to do the right thing.”

While SmartAsset reports union participation has plunged by 48 percent in the last 35 years, Colorado saw a 22.5 percent gain in union membership from 2015 to 2019.

The low number of complaints in El Paso County and Colorado might relate to lack of understanding of how to file a complaint or to complacency, said Jonathan Liebert, CEO of Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado.

“Generally, people are not that well informed on who to go to,” he said. “We get a ton of calls on this very issue [COVID protections]. People say, ‘I just had a business owner say they weren’t going to wear PPE. I want to file a complaint and a customer review.”

But few follow through, he said. “Our process is way easier than OSHA,” Liebert said, but for every 20 callers with complaints, only five submit a complaint to the BBB.”

After Gov. Jared Polis imposed the mandatory mask order on July 17, Liebert said, complaints dropped off. Recently, the BBB launched the “Working Safer Pledge” that businesses can adopt by vowing to follow strict COVID guidelines, thereby alerting the public to their promise to keep workers and customers safe.

Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.