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Union says it raised concerns about worker safety for food service employees before documented outbreak and death

An employee at Oregon Health and Science University hospital has reportedly died from COVID-19.

OHSU/KRISTYNA WENTZ-GRAFF - Pictured: A recently launched in-house COVID-19 testing lab at OHSU. A labor union is at odds with OHSU over a recent COVID-19 outbreak and employee death within the Portland hospital's Nutrition and Food Services department. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the employee union representing OHSU's workers, reported Friday, May 15, that the employee worked in OHSU's Food and Nutrition Services department. The union was notified of his death on Wednesday, May 13.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of an OHSU member and extend our sincere condolences to family, friends and colleagues," OHSU said in a statement. "Patient privacy laws require consent from family members to disclose protected health information, and the family has requested privacy. However, we can share that the employee did not provide direct patient care."

The employee's illness and death followed documented concerns from AFSCME about workplace safety and practices within the hospital cafeteria at the Portland hospital.

For more than a month prior, the union said, it fielded complaints and reports of overcrowding, no social distancing among employees and "misinformation about the nature of COVID-19" as well as other unsafe conditions.

Union reps said on March 24, one day after Oregon's 'Stay Home, Save Lives' executive order went into effect, AFSCME approached OHSU specifically with concerns about food and nutrition employees' safety and risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"In general, the concerns were ignored, were excused away or just weren't followed up on — by the very people at OHSU who should have taken such concerns seriously," an April 9 blog post states.

By April 10, OHSU acknowledged that eight employees within its cafeteria had tested positive for COVID-19. The health care provider said each employee was "isolating at home" following the tests.

According to OHSU, the first employee who tested positive had been in close contact with a family member with COVID-19.

That employee remained quarantined at home as soon as symptoms appeared, but had worked a shift while asymptomatic, leading to an outbreak of COVID-19 among food service workers.

"Unfortunately, seven of the employees' co-workers subsequently became symptomatic and tested positive for COVID-19 through OHSU's Occupation Health Department; all are isolating at home," the hospital stated on April 10.

AFSCME alleges OHSU didn't act quick enough to stop the spread within the workplace.

"Our union and its members notified OHSU management as early as mid-March about the appalling and dangerous conditions Food and Nutrition employees were being forced to work in," said Michael Stewart, vice president of AFSCME Local 328. "Upper management within the department flagrantly disregarded basic safety protocols and needlessly put people in harm's way. The death of our member is a tragic reminder that those deemed essential are too often treated as expendable by our society. This sacrifice is more than any worker should bear, and we are heartbroken by this loss." 

Following the complaints and positive tests, OHSU agreed to appoint a crisis manager to oversee and ensure compliance with safety precautions and conduct employee training on COVID-19 safety and prevention.

The research hospital also pledged to provide detail and transparency about its contact tracing practices; provide better communication to employees without access to email; create a workers compensation response plan; and notify AFSCME of any new COVID-19 cases within the department, among other changes.

OHSU declined to provide additional comment or specify when the employee died. A union member familiar with the case, who declined to speak on the record, said the employee tested positive on or around April 22.

 "OHSU's commitment to providing a safe work and learning environment is embraced at the highest level of the institution and carried forward by our board of directors, executive leaders, senior managers and dedicated staff. Any allegation of impropriety at OHSU is treated with the gravity it deserves and appropriate actions are taken to address known issues," the hospital added in its April 10 statement on the outbreak.

The union confirmed the fatality May 15, and said it was working with the hospital to make grief counselors available to coworkers.


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