Washington workplace-safety regulators have fined employers at a food-distribution warehouse in Centralia accused of “severe” violations of rules meant to protect workers from COVID-19.
With close to 1,000 workers from different employers at the warehouse, the three employers disregarded workers’ safety by failing to enforce mask use or verify vaccination statuses, not reporting hospitalizations, and allowing workers who had tested positive for COVID into the workplace, the Department of Labor and Industry contends.
From July to October last year, about one in four employees at the warehouse tested positive for COVID-19, according to the department. Of the 253 workers who tested positive, five were hospitalized.
All three companies have appealed the citations and fines.
Following a referral from the Thurston County Health Department, labor officials opened several inspections that resulted in a total of $285,000 in fines to three employers: United Natural Foods Inc., Capstone Logistics and Prime360.
UNFI is a food wholesaler while Capstone Logistics provides freight management, supply chain analytics, last-mile delivery and other logistics services. Prime360 handles pallet-management services.
“Our investigation uncovered a widespread outbreak that put employees, their families and their communities across 10 counties at risk for COVID-19,” said Joel Sacks, director for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. “The actions these companies took or failed to take undoubtedly made it worse — contributing to faster and broader spread of the virus in the workplace.”
In response, Prime360 says it has a “robust” COVID-19 plan and UNFI says the company has been recognized in the past for implementing “industry-leading COVID-19 safety protocols.”
“UNFI frontline associates have been essential in keeping food and groceries moving to our customers, allowing them to support and feed their local communities,” a spokesperson said. “Our company’s most important value across all distribution centers, including Centralia, is the safety of our associates, contractors, customers and the products we sell.”
UNFI employs about 600 workers at the facility. Capstone Logistics has roughly 200 employees at the Centralia warehouse and Prime360 has about two dozen.
The labor department accused UNFI of initially failing to provide contact information for employees who had tested positive through on-site testing, claiming not to know who some employees worked for. The department also contends the company allowed employees to work at the facility while the company knew, or should have known, that they had tested positive.
Following an initial investigation in July, UNFI told labor officials it had voluntarily closed most operations, the department said Tuesday. A further investigation from Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, the Washington State Department of Health and the labor department found UNFI continued to fulfill shipments from the site with its workforce.
The state fined UNFI $140,000 and placed the company in its “severe violator program.”
Capstone Logistics was also listed as a “severe violator” and fined $75,4000. The department said the company had loaded crowded vans with employees without screening for temperature or other COVID-19 symptoms, and without requiring masks.
An on-site manager for Prime360 showed intentional disregard for the health and safety of workers, motivated by a personal disagreement with statewide health and safety rules, the department said. That manager told labor officials it was his policy to assume an employee who was not wearing a mask was vaccinated and that he did not need to check their vaccination status or enforce mask use.
Prime360 was charged with a $70,000 fine.
In response to the citation, Prime360 said it has a robust COVID policy including paid leave for an employee with a known infection, indoor mask requirements and social distancing when possible.
It said the labor department incorrectly claimed that it had four employees test positive at the Centralia warehouse. The company says it had just one confirmed case that may have been contracted at that workplace.
“Prime360 values the safety and well-being of its employees above all else,” a spokesperson said.
Capstone Logistics declined to comment.
The labor department also cited six other businesses at the same location for less serious violations, including not having COVID-19 plans and not keeping proper records. Money from the fines will go toward the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund.