Employee: HVAC plant fired me for raising COVID concerns
In just six weeks, Oregon workers filed 2,747 complaints related to COVID-19 with Oregon's Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA.)
The state saw a 1,600% percent jump in total reports from March 2 to April 5, with a flood of complaints pouring in following an executive 'Stay Home' order issued by the governor's office on March 23. Since then, workers in Oregon have consulted the state agency alleging everything from disregard for social distancing orders, to virus exposure, to lack of protective wear for frontline workers.
At a Tualatin-based manufacturing plant with more than 300 workers, one employee says he was suspended, then terminated after speaking up about safety concerns related to COVID-19.
Nortek Air Solutions describes itself as the largest custom HVAC manufacturer, specializing in commercial and industrial air intake systems. Its northwest location in Tualatin is one of seven sites across the U.S. and Canada.
Nortek's Tualatin plant was the subject of two separate OSHA complaints- one over concerns of a COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, and another describing a lack of safe distancing among employees.
One employee at Nortek's Tualatin facility said when he raised concern about conditions at the plant, he was disciplined, and eventually fired.
Brett Resko said he worked for the company for roughly five years before the COVID-19 outbreak. When warnings about the spread of the virus started to surface, he became concerned about the more than 300 people still working at the warehouse.
Resko said he started asking about whether changes could be made, "the day that the CDC finally came out on the news and said 'we're gonna have a when not an if."
"I'm am a maintenance manager, so I talked to my boss and a production manager about, you know, we need to get in front of this … it's serious. It's not a joke anymore," Resko said. He says he was met with pushback from management and told not to "blow it out of proportion, or cause fear," as he recalls.
As work continued, Resko said he got word of a coworker's spouse who tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly afterward, some of the maintenance employees were asked to come in on a Saturday and clean the facility the weekend of April 4, in an effort to decontaminate any potentially affected areas.
When Resko told his manager his employees weren't comfortable cleaning without proper protective gear, he says an argument ensued.
A few days later, he and another employee were suspended. The following week, Resko was terminated.
Resko said he was told he was terminated over the argument with his manager, but he believes his firing "had everything to do with" him being a whistleblower. He has since filed a complaint with Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries, which handles workplace rights violations.
Chad Gooch, director of operations for Nortek, declined to comment on the employee termination, but said Nortek encourages its staff to "bring up safety and other concerns in an appropriate and respectful manner."
"There has never been retaliation of any kind for bringing up, or pointing out a safety concern, or unsafe condition," Gooch said. "Our company has a strong track record of putting safety first. This commitment toward safety has earned our plant certification from OSHA's 5 year Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) that recognizes Oregon businesses with exemplary health and safety programs."
A leaked internal email sent to Nortek employees by Gooch earlier in April stressed the importance of adhering to the state's guidelines and indicates management did enforce safety measures.
The same letter warned against those with a "bad attitude."
"As always, if you run into someone with a bad attitude, dramatizing, spreading rumors, or fear let me know and we will deal with that on a case by case basis," the employee memo stated.
Gooch said after the two complaints filed in early April, Nortek has since been given a "green light" by OSHA to continue its operations.
The company reorganized production to account for safe distancing and has since added cleaning routines, while hiring a professional cleaning company to come in weekly, he noted.
"Employees have been encouraged to wear face masks and, as of Monday April 6, masks have been mandatory for the 340 employees who continue to work on the premises," Gooch said.
The complaints against Nortek are among thousands of COVID-19-related reports filed with OSHA since mid-March.
Last month's executive stay-home order from the governor's office called for the closure of several types of non-essential businesses, but manufacturing plants weren't among them.
"There's been some confusion about this. The governor, in her executive order, ordered some types of businesses to close, but she did not order all non-essential businesses to close," said Aaron Corvin, public information officer for Oregon OSHA.
That's created gray areas for many businesses, and unease among employees who are part of large workforces like Nortek that share a site or the same floor of a building.
Nortek employees aren't the only ones to raise concern over COVID-19 risks in the workplace. Earlier this month, employees at a Wells Fargo call center in Hillsboro spoke up about working in close proximity to one another and not being informed about cases of the virus in their workplace.
Similarly, a Kaiser Permanente pharmacy was recently closed to the public after a COVID-19 outbreak among employees, but employees were still asked to come in and work as the pharmacy remained open to serve the adjoining hospital.
OSHA announced April 13 that it will start tightening its enforcement efforts, with spot checks on businesses. Earlier this month, the Portland Tribune reported the agency had issued no citations despite the nearly 2,750 complaints.
The spot checks "are intended to confirm whether employers are actually doing what they are telling the division they are doing in response to complaints," an announcement from the agency states.
"This approach will allow us to verify the responses to complaints that we've received so far from employers while focusing our enforcement resources on those employers most likely to be in continued non-compliance," said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA.
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