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Workers say COVID-19 safety precautions were absent at Hillsboro job sites

TIM HERMAN/INTEL CORPORATION - Cranes at Intel's Ronler Acres where the next big fab is going up. As Oregon issued 'Stay Home' orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, Intel kept many of its employees working, and faced OSHA complaints for it.As the streets fell silent, machines and construction continued to buzz at Intel.

While much of Intel's workforce has been working remotely during the state's stay-at-home orders, several employee sectors say it's been business as usual at Intel's campuses in Hillsboro, and they've feared for their safety because of it.

By May 4, Intel Corp.'s Oregon employees had filed 41 complaints against the company with the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Construction contractors continue to work on site, as well as manufacturing and quality control employees. Most of the OSHA complaints stem from employees concerned about being exposed to the virus at the Ronler Acres campus.

On March 24, Intel confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in a construction worker at one of the company sites, KATU News reported. The following week, another construction worker had been infected, and the company confirmed at least one employee in a lab had also become infected.

During the same timeframe, employees told OSHA they were asked to continue to come to work alongside others in close quarters, running afoul of Oregon's executive order.

One employee said the company advised that it was "OK to break social distancing requirements, as long as it's for no more than 30 minutes."

The same company guidance was outlined in a May 8 Bloomberg news report. The news outlet noted Intel employee complaints that the tech giant was prioritizing chip manufacturing over employee safety.

In 34 of the Intel complaints, employees or contractors in multiple divisions said physical distancing wasn't being observed. A construction contractor said protective gear like masks wasn't being provided, gloves were being shared, and according to an April 6 complaint, "employees in construction continue to share PPE; even though employees have tested positive for COVID-19."

The complaint came two weeks after Intel publicly announced on March 23 its plans to donate 1 million pieces of company-owned personal protective equipment for health care workers.

"We will donate masks, gloves, face shields and other gear that we have sourced from our factory stock and emergency supplies, and we'll continue to look for additional sources of personal protective equipment that we can source and donate as quickly as possible to meet our commitment of more than a million items," said Todd Brady, director of global public affairs for Intel.

Another construction employee working on site said anecdotally that adherence to mask use and physical distancing has improved over the past month, and a safety steward has been assigned to monitor work areas.

Manufacturing employees complained of tight working conditions in the company's fabrication units or "fabs."

"The equipment is close together, which makes it very difficult to stay apart," an April 15 complaint noted. "People regularly gather around a computer or talk at a close distance. It's hard to hear with all the machine noise so it's difficult to have a conversation from 6 feet away."

The company addressed the employee concerns, saying it has adapted its operations to prioritize employee safety and health.

PHOTO: TIM HERMAN/INTEL CORPORATION - A file photo shows the observation room at Intel where staff manage quantum chip testing. While many Intel staff are working remotely, some, particularly those in manufacturing and construction, are still required to report to a campus each day."Intel's top priority in managing the coronavirus situation is protecting the health and wellbeing of our workforce while continuing to operate and support our customers around the world," the company said in a statement. "This has been an incredibly dynamic and unprecedented situation, and we have worked to learn and adapt as fast as possible so we can continue to safeguard our workers and communities. We encourage our workforce to raise concerns and we work hard to address those concerns quickly."

Chelsea Hughes, with Intel's corporate communications department, noted the company sent formal responses to OSHA and the agency conducted site visits.

"We have not received any violations, and OSHA inspectors that visited our sites complimented us on our actions," Hughes said.

Complaints filed with OSHA against a company or business don't necessarily indicate a violation, and often, the state agency will consult with the employer rather than taking punitive action.

Correspondence between the agency and Intel shows OSHA enforcement officials were satisfied by Intel's response to the complaints and the steps the company said it took to remedy employees' concerns.

"At this time, no further action is planned; however, if we receive another complaint of this nature or information from the complainant that the hazards have not been satisfactorily addressed, an inspection may be conducted or additional information may be requested," wrote Penny Wolf-McCormick, health enforcement manager for OSHA, in a letter to Intel on April 21.

Currently, one complaint has been fully closed by OSHA following actions taken by Intel while the majority of the other complaints are "preliminarily" closed and subject to change and five complaints remain "in process," said Aaron Corvin, spokesperson for OSHA.

In response to complaints that Intel told employees physical distancing less than six feet is OK for under 30 minutes, Shannon Phillips, Oregon technology development health and safety manager for Intel, told OSHA some early communications about physical distancing from the governor's office referred to a 30-minute limit for close-proximity work.

"Intel has subsequently updated its social distancing guidelines to make it clearer and more accurate and to reflect the company's expectations that personnel working onsite observe the social distancing requirements stipulated by local government authorities if more restrictive than Intel guidance," Phillips wrote.

Phillips also said the company removed some early signage in construction areas advising workers to maintain 3-foot distances. She said the guidance was based on communication from the Oregon Health Authority, which stated if 6-foot distances were not practical in spaces such as grocery stores, 3-foot distances were sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus in droplet form.

Since Oregon's first COVID- -19 case, OSHA has seen a substantial spike in complaints from employees concerned about workplace safety and virus exposure risk. During a typical year, the agency receives roughly 2,000 complaints, according to an agency spokesperson. In March and April, OSHA received more 3,700 complaints related to COVID-19.

Reports from Intel employees rivaled those filed against Amazon in Oregon, but other large employers, like Lowe's and Fred Meyer, accounted for more complaints. As of mid-May, OSHA documented 55 reports of safety concerns at Fred Meyer and 45 at Lowe's. Health care provider at Kaiser Permanente had 36 reports, according to a summary of complaints provided to Pamplin Media Group by OSHA.

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- Intel reports first coronavirus case among Oregon employees

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