Hundreds of coronavirus-related complaints flood Oregon OSHA
Hundreds of employees have complained that their employers are not following Gov. Kate Brown's March 23 order closing non-essential businesses and ordering other businesses to enforce social distancing and to allow remote work to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Some employees complain that their working conditions simply are not safe due to their facilities, management decisions or a lack of precautions against the coronavirus.
The complaints have poured in from flight schools, retail stores, massage salons, warehouses, restaurants, hospitals, call centers, high-tech firms, wineries, gyms, dental offices, cannabis companies — you name it.
"Employees are unable to practice safe social distancing when delivering pizza to customers' homes," was one complaint to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health division, known as Oregon OSHA.
Oregon is being forced to change dramatically in a short period of time.
And much of the task of enforcing that has gone to OSHA. The agency has assigned 75 compliance officers to the task, along with a dozen managers and support staff.
"We're literally at this point looking at hundreds of complaints per day," said Aaron Corvin, a public information officer for the division. "Within a 24-hour period in the Portland field office, we had over 400 complaints. … It's an all hands on deck situation for us."
The complaints are many. Lack of handwashing stations. Employees forced to work in close quarters with each other. Lack of hot water. Employees forced to keep working at non-essential businesses. No running water. Lack of employee bathrooms. Lack of masks. No sanitizer. Employees forced to come to work when they should be working from home. Sick employees working despite potential exposure.
But state officials are butting up against a situation not accounted for in OSHA's rules. And their most applicable rule — that an employer has a duty to maintain a safe and healthy workplace — lacks hard and fast rules and definitions.
"What we tend to do is look to the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations for guidance about how employers should be protecting their employees," said Michael Wood, OSHA's top administrator.
Not all complaints bear out
Some of the early complaints predating the governor's order show that when OSHA does investigate, they sometimes don't find support for the employee's allegation.
On March 9, an employee complained that Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse in downtown Portland, had not had hot water for three days.
When an OSHA inspector called the manager by telephone, he supplied paperwork showing the hot water was fixed within two hours of discovering the problem, and described measures taken by the company — part of a national chain — to protect against coronavirus.
"I believe ... the allegations are false," the inspector wrote on March 13.
Another complaint, filed against King Estate Winery in Eugene, claimed that employees were not asked to properly fit their N95 protective masks as required. The winery wrote back saying they had relaxed use of the masks in keeping with new CDC guidelines.
An employee at the Portland Hospital Service Corp., set up to launder hospital linens, complained on March 9 that employees there were potentially exposed to the coronavirus but were not given protective gear.
"We did an investigation on this matter and found no hazard exists, which we reported to OSHA as required," responded Jim Thompson, the company's general manager, when contacted by the Portland Tribune.
Some complaints were not investigated, such as the one claiming Hawaiian Airlines employees were asked to clean an airplane at Portland International Airport without any protective gear. The employees refused, causing the flight to be cancelled, according to the complaint.
Hawaiian Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the early complaints filed against health care facilities pertained to Kaiser Permanente, including the Westside Medical Center and Sunnyside Medical Center — most of them saying workers were not given enough masks or other personal protective equipment, known as PPE.
One complaint alleged that the Westside facility had smuggled in a COVID-19 positive person not for medical care, but to visit their spouse who was receiving care — without alerting hospital staff of the potential exposure.
Kaiser declined to comment on the specific allegations, but said, through spokesman Mike Foley, that "We have the PPE we need to right now to care for patients and protect staff. We have taken several significant steps to preserve PPE in anticipation of an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, knowing there continues to be an international shortage of these supplies."
Felisa Hagins of the Service Employees International Union Local 49 said employees lack needed safety gear. "There is a shortage of PPE at Kaiser just like everywhere else," she said.
OSHA can shut businesses down
OSHA typically uses a business-friendly approach, making calls or sending faxes, issuing letters alerting businesses to issues, ordering inspections and issuing citations.
But it also has the ability to shut businesses down, called "red tag," if there is what regulators consider to be an "imminent hazard" to employees.
If "an employer is not doing what needs to be done to protect that employee, then you potentially have a situation where we would enforce," Corvin said.
Penny Wolf-McCormick, an OSHA enforcement manager, said her staff has adequate supplies to do the necessary inspections. She said it's a challenging situation for employers.
"I think it's very tricky," she said. "This is a rapidly evolving situation and what's being recommended is changing from, you know, week to week, if not day to day."
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