Investigative Unit

COVID at Work – State Sees 30% Rise in Safety Complaints

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State regulators say they’ve received a flood of safety complaints from workers claiming their employers are not doing enough to protect against COVID-19. Inspectors with Cal/OSHA tell the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit they’ve seen a 30% increase in safety complaints this year, largely due to the coronavirus.  

Since the start of the pandemic, medical workers have been at the forefront of covid safety concerns. Between February and June 15th, Cal/OSHA received 2,918 covid-related complaints, with more than a third coming from the healthcare industry.

St. Rose Hospital nurse Breana Lastiri told NBC Bay Area she’s concerned about conditions at the Hayward hospital after 37 of her coworkers tested positive for COVID-19 during an outbreak in June.

“We noticed on our end that a lot of people were starting to call in sick and suddenly we were becoming very short staffed,” Lastiri said. “We're coming to work, and we're being exposed to covid-positive patients.”

A spokesperson for St. Rose told NBC Bay Area the hospital is working with county health officials to address the issue and implement new safety measures to prevent another outbreak.

As more businesses reopen across the state, Cal/OSHA is now seeing a second wave of complaints from other sectors. Those include 353 complaints from retail workers, 351 complaints from manufacturing employees, 216 complaints from the transportation and warehousing industry, and 159 covid complaints from food service workers.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to increase enforcement of the state’s reopening guidelines for businesses.

“We’ve been so focused on the when [and] not so focused on the how, to safely reopen,” Gov. Newsom said. “I don’t want to do this in a punitive mindset, but we have to keep people safe.”

The announcement came after a rash of work-related positive cases, including an incident in May where 38 employees at Lusamerica Fish Products in Morgan Hill tested positive in a single day.

After the outbreak, the fish packing company increased its safety precautions by adding barriers to workstations and frequently cleaning. COO Louise Moretti told NBC Bay Area, “All our sanitation and preventative measures are followed diligently,” and the company has not had a positive test since.  

Workplace Enforcement

Right now, half of all Cal/OSHA covid complaints are resolved over the phone. Investigators conducted more than 140 onsite inspections resulting in two potential fines totaling $6,407. The state issued the first fine to a hospital, and the second fine to a grocery store in San Jose after a worker became sick. Both fines could be rescinded before finalized.     

California Retailers Association President Rachel Michelin believes part of the problem is that businesses aren’t always clear which guidelines to follow between the CDC, Cal/OSHA, and local county health departments.  

“We want to play by the rules. We want to be good partners, we just need to know what the rules are,” Michelin told NBC Bay Area.

Michelin says getting customers to keep workers safe by wearing a mask is another big challenge.

“We've had knives drawn on associates, a lot of yelling, a lot of colorful language,” Michelin said.

Despite the rise in safety complaints and a record spike in cases, Michelin believes another shutdown would be a bad idea.

“That would just do a lot [of harm] in terms of frustrating all Californians if we saw us going backwards instead of thoughtfully thinking about working together to see how we can contain the spread so that we keep our businesses open,” Michelin said.

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