People asked to work during the pandemic have filed thousands of complaints regarding their exposure to the novel coronavirus and a lack of safeguards at their places of employment, according to records obtained under a Freedom of Information request and reviewed by The Washington Post.
The employee complaints offer a snapshot of the fear experienced by the Americans compelled to work while the majority have been urged to stay at home, and they come from an array of workplaces: hospitals, construction companies, grocery stores, pharmacies and shipping companies, among others.
Collectively, the records depict the desperation of the employees as well as their frustrations with employers, who in the view of workers were at best simply unprepared for a pandemic and at worst callously unconcerned with worker safety.
Workers complain about shortages of masks and gloves, a lack of space that would enable them to stand six feet from one another, and being forced to work with others who appear sick.
“The call center with over 400 people is unsanitary,” one complaint reads. “Employees have to share desks and people are within 2 feet from each other.”
“Delivery drivers are required to disinfect vehicles using personally bought chemicals, without been trained on the hazards associated with such activities and chemicals,” another complaint reads.
“The company has stressed hand-washing for COVID19 precaution; but 4 different bathrooms were out of hand soap yesterday and hand wipes / sanitizer supplies were lacking,” reads another. “Managers simply say they are on back-order.”
The records include numerous complaints from health-care workers, including those given “plastic ponchos” and masks made out of paper towels. Employees report a lack of hand sanitizer or soap in bathrooms; pharmacists and technicians have been forced to work in proximity without protective gear.
Citing the Freedom of Information Act, The Post requested all worker complaints regarding the coronavirus filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from January through early April. There were more than 3,000 such complaints filed. The records do not state what actions were taken as a result.
The actual number of complaints from employees about the coronavirus, however, is likely far higher because that data does not include the complaints from every state.
Democrats and workers’ groups have pressed the Trump administration to enact rules requiring employers to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s safety guidelines for employers. The Department of Labor has declined to do so, instead giving advice to employers they can ignore.
“The large number of complaints they have received is powerful evidence that workers across the country are terrified and frustrated that their employers are not providing them with safe workplaces,” said David Michaels, the former OSHA chief during the Obama administration.
The toll on workers has been startling.
More than 500 workers at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., have reportedly come down with the virus. Already there have been deaths of workers at a Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, New York, a Giant in Largo, Maryland, and a Walmart in the Chicago area. At least 40 registered nurses have died in the United States, according to National Nurses United.
The conditions have set off worker protests around the United States, as employees demand extra protections — masks and gloves, for example — or hazard pay. Some of the first events arose at Instacart on March 30, when thousands of workers stopped responding to delivery orders. There have been protests by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, at Whole Foods and at McDonald’s.
Initially, at least, some large retail chains, including Walgreens, Target and Office Depot, asked that workers not wear masks or gloves on the job, according to news accounts.
Despite requests from unions and members of Congress, OSHA has yet to issue a specific coronavirus standard for employers that would protect “essential” workers.
The result has been a patchwork of attempts to deal with safety issues. Some stores let customers in without masks, others do not; some places offer employees masks, others have forbidden employees from wearing them, either out of concern that they would scare customers or because they are in short supply.
In early March, OSHA issued a 35-page booklet with suggestions for what employers ought to do to protect employees: The documents tells them to “promote frequent and thorough hand-washing,” “encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes” and “provide customers and the public with tissues.”
It further recommends that when the virus is present in an area, employers should “consider offering face masks to ill employees and customers” and that health care workers dealing with sick patients “should wear respirators.”
But the booklet notes these recommendations are not in any way legally binding for employers.
“This guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations,” the booklet begins.
Health care workers in particular have complained about the unsafe conditions.
In Windham, Connecticut, a health care worker at a hospital was asked to work on a floor with COVID-19 patients. Before entering a patient’s room, the worker picked up a N95 mask from the hospital supply, but was then told to put it back and use only a basic surgical mask, according to a complaint filed with OSHA.
That worker has since tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, said John Brady, executive vice president of AFT Connecticut, a union that represents teachers, nurses and others.
“The employer has denied employees adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) resulting in at least one employee (maybe more) contracting the COVID-19 virus,” according to the complaint.
Similarly, a surgeon at a New England hospital was told by management he was breaking hospital policy by insisting a patient with COVID-19 wear a surgical face mask while coughing, since hospital policy dictated these masks only be given to positive patients while they are being transported, according to a physician at the hospital with direct knowledge of the interaction who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation from his employer.
Health care providers at the hospital also faced disciplinary threats for purchasing their own protective gear from local department stores, the same physician said. Staff at the hospital are widely fearful their attempts to speak up about dangerous shortages in protective equipment will lead to retaliation, and are concerned complaints to federal safety inspectors will fall on deaf ears, they said.
A worker at a poultry plant in Camilla, Georgia, filed a complaint to OSHA weeks ago, raising concerns about plant workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the assembly line, according to Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents poultry workers. Three employees have died of coronavirus at the plant, Fields said, but the workers groups have not heard from federal safety inspectors.
“People don’t even waste their time calling OSHA anymore. We’ve called OSHA and they’re useless,” Fields said, adding the agency’s responsiveness has dramatically declined. “Why waste your time?”