Oregon Workplace Officials Slow to Respond to COVID Complaints

Of the state’s 35 largest workplace outbreaks, safety officials received warnings before 23 occurred and only inspected two of them. OSHA has received 11,000 complaints about COVID safety risks and violations.

(TNS) — The complaints to Oregon workplace safety officials alleged that workers were facing life-threatening risks before the coronavirus took hold and rapidly moved through factories, stores and plants across the state.

On the Oregon coast, one complaint said, nearly a dozen workers tested positive for coronavirus but were still required to report to work.

In southern Oregon, another said, workers who stood a foot apart on a production line were told to “deal with it.”

And in the Portland metro area, an allegation said, workers with coronavirus symptoms were threatened with discipline if they tried to stay home. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health administration didn’t inspect any of the workplaces in response. Each business later suffered outbreaks, leaving a combined 250 workers and their closest contacts infected or presumed to be infected with the coronavirus.

It’s impossible to know whether an inspection prompted by workers’ complaints would have prevented those outbreaks, or if inspections conducted elsewhere by the state successfully kept workers from getting sick.

But among the 35 largest workplace outbreaks in Oregon, state officials received warnings before 23, an analysis of state data by The Oregonian/OregonLive found. Yet state officials inspected only two of those businesses before an outbreak, finding no violations.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Reyna Lopez, director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Oregon’s largest farmworker union. “They’ve failed us. The message it sends to people is you’re on your own.

“I would think the one agency that is supposed to be protecting workers would step up during a pandemic,” she added, “and it hasn’t.”

Since March, Oregon OSHA has received more than 11,000 complaints about COVID safety risks and potential violations of Gov. Kate Brown’s public health orders. The workplace safety agency, with 76 compliance officers and a $13.5 million enforcement budget, has relied on a massive phone and letter-writing campaign to ensure compliance.

It’s an unprecedented response for an administration that has gotten about six times more complaints than normal. But because the effort has relied on taking workplaces at their word, with few unannounced inspections, worker advocates say it has been ineffective, giving the state watchdog no real way to verify whether workplaces are actually complying.

Michael Wood, the agency’s administrator, said few inspections happened in March and April amidst an early rush of complaints because of concerns that inspectors without symptoms might be carriers for the novel coronavirus. In May and June, he said, his agency prioritized inspections where they could be outside or conduct interviews outside.

The agency also conducted hundreds of spot checks, he said, to see whether businesses were complying with the governor’s shut-down orders. Half of the complaints have been resolved; another 5,000 are still being processed.

“Overall, I feel good about how we’ve responded,” Wood said. “That’s not the same thing as saying we did it perfectly or that there aren’t things I would change with the ability to look back at them.”

The agency will not initiate an inspection solely based on an outbreak because they don’t want to deter employers from testing workers, Wood said. However, if the agency receives a referral from the Oregon Health Authority or local public health authorities following an outbreak, they are likely to make an inspection a priority. The health authority refused to say how often that’s happened.

In all, Oregon OSHA had conducted 237 inspections related to COVID-19 as of Nov. 3. That’s about one a day.

It had issued 50 citations and fines totaling $114,000 as of the same date. Those include $23,000 in fines against a Salem cafe and Lakeview pharmacy the state said failed to require physical distancing and ensure that customers and employees wore masks, ignoring repeated warnings.

The Washington state Department of Labor & Industries has conducted 962 inspections related to COVID-19, more than four times as many, resulting in 378 violations. Agency officials there would not say how many fines have been levied, requiring a formal request for the figures, which the department said would take more than a month to release.

Oregon’s workplaces have exacerbated the statewide spread of the coronavirus: an estimated 9,967 people have contracted the virus that way, nearly a sixth of all cases in the state. Fifty-three people have died from workplace outbreaks, many of them in prisons, though the Oregon Health Authority refuses to say where the deaths occurred.

The newsroom analysis, which revealed the lack of inspections at businesses with outbreaks, was only possible because Oregon discloses the name of any business linked to five or more coronavirus cases and with at least 30 workers. The state began releasing workplace information only after media reports about a second large outbreak this spring tied to Townsend Farms, prompting officials to acknowledge the need for a “transparent statewide approach.”

Washington and California will not say where outbreaks happen, citing potential stigma and privacy concerns. As a result, it is impossible to know whether workplace safety officials in those states have inspected businesses with large outbreaks at a greater frequency than Oregon.

Dozens of Complaints, No Inspections

The coronavirus moved swiftly through Oregon’s prisons, leaving 17 inmates dead and 1,300 infected, along with more than 300 state workers positive.

Oregon OSHA has received dozens of complaints about the conditions in prisons, which are responsible for five of the state’s 10 worst outbreaks, excluding long-term care facilities.

It hasn’t inspected any.

On April 2, two months before a months-long outbreak at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, which sickened 547 people and led to 11 prisoner deaths, Oregon OSHA got a complaint that inmates from outside facilities were still being transported into the prison.

Prisoners repeatedly congregated in groups of more than 100, the complaint said, and employees weren’t provided adequate protective equipment.

“The employer is not ensuring employees are abiding by the social distancing standards set forth in the Governor’s Order,” the complaint said.

Oregon OSHA sent a letter to the state Department of Corrections, which responded with detailed assurances that it was taking the pandemic seriously.

After the prison outbreak began, the state got another complaint July 17: Although prisoners had asked guards to wear masks, “the guards have responded that they do not have to wear the mask because it is not mandatory.”

The Department of Corrections gave Oregon OSHA a staff-wide email in which its deputy director ordered employees to wear masks. The July 13 email acknowledged a well-documented anti-mask mindset among correctional staff. The correctional department’s safety administrator, Bob Adams, told Oregon OSHA that employees at Snake River were following mask requirements “to the maximum extent possible.”

Yet in August, a month later, Oregon OSHA received four more complaints that mask requirements were not being enforced at Snake River or the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, home of the state’s biggest and second biggest outbreaks. Another complaint about inadequate protective gear came in September.

No safety inspections resulted.

“The virus is not incarcerated,” said Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which has lobbied for a large-scale release of inmates to allow for social distancing behind bars. “We’d welcome OSHA taking action to investigate and inspect to make sure everything possible is being done to prevent the spread of disease.”

Wood said it’s harder to inspect a prison and get an unvarnished view of what’s happening inside because there’s no element of surprise.

“In retrospect, do I wish we had gone into a couple of those prisons? Yes,” Wood said. “I agree there’s a red flag that we missed or ideally that I would have liked to have responded to differently.”

Frustration At Food Processors

Oregon’s other hardest-hit job sites are farms and food-processing facilities, where more than 50 coronavirus outbreaks have left upwards of 1,500 workers and close contacts infected or suspected of being infected, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The state’s efforts to protect those high-risk workers has frustrated Jenny Pool Radway, executive director at Consejo Hispano, a nonprofit based in Astoria that supports Latino workers.

Pool Radway’s organization filed a complaint on behalf of workers April 18, alleging that Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria was not providing personal protective equipment or enforcing social distancing rules. Oregon OSHA followed up with Bornstein Seafoods two days later in an email.

Two dozen workers at Bornstein tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks later, forcing the company to temporarily shut down operations.

Even after the outbreak, Oregon OSHA did not conduct a formal inspection, finding the company’s emailed response satisfactory.

Bornstein Seafoods, which didn’t respond to questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive, told Oregon OSHA the company had implemented social distancing requirements, distributed masks, regularly sanitized the facility and provided information about COVID-19 to employees before the outbreak, state records show. Roxann Forkan, the company’s occupational health and safety manager, also told Oregon OSHA the company had invited local public health officials to visit the facility and recommend best safety practices.

Pool Radway said she was under the impression the complaint her organization filed would have prompted an inspection from Oregon OSHA.

But that didn’t happen at Bornstein Seafoods, nor in response to multiple COVID-19 safety complaints against Pacific Seafood or frozen potato processor Lamb Weston, which reported a combined 677 coronavirus cases across eight work sites and are responsible for two of the five-worst workplace outbreaks in the state.

“I realize they are understaffed and they are getting inundated with complaints, but I think you need to come up with a prioritization plan, so the adequate attention is being given where you can make a larger difference,” Pool Radway said. “I would think a food processing facility would be one of those higher-ranked places.”

Oregon OSHA has conducted 47 coronavirus-related inspections at agricultural and food processing facilities this year, but only rarely after large outbreaks. Fourteen of the 35 largest outbreaks in Oregon have taken place at farms and food processing facilities. The agency inspected just two.

State officials say they’re now better prepared to get inside at-risk businesses.

Oregon OSHA adopted an emphasis program for food processors in June, enabling the agency to put more resources toward inspecting facilities and helping employers implement COVID-19 safety standards. A similar program was already in place for farms.

Wood said his agency has ramped up inspections as the complaint volume has stabilized. It has found an unusually high number of willful violations, he said, cases where the agency’s initial queries to businesses were “met with something that is difficult to characterize other than defiance,” he said.

“Frankly, there are probably a couple hundred more of those that we should do,” he said.

Oregon on Nov. 16 became just the third state to adopt COVID requirements for businesses, including a temporary mandate for businesses to notify workers when a positive case is discovered in the workplace.

No national requirements have been issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which under President Trump has not had a permanent leader.

(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.