Since March 2, Oregon OSHA received nearly 3,000 complaints related to COVID-19 safety compliance, including reports on 100 separate employers in Deschutes County. The agency usually receives 2,000 a year.
- Cloth or surgical masks can provide some protection, but the CDC recommends N95 respirator masks for health care workers who come into contact with COVID-19 patients.
Most complaints draw into question whether certain businesses should be open at all, or how they can operate while keeping employees safe. Does the employer require appropriate social distancing measures? Why aren’t employees wearing personal protective equipment? Complaints come from employees as well as customers and passersby observing people working in close proximity and without protective gear.
The sheer number of reports indicate both widespread confusion and blatant disregard for Gov. Kate Brown’s orders issued March 23.
Michael Wood, the head of OSHA, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the agency is actively encouraging both employees and customers to file complaints. Moving forward, OSHA will focus its enforcement activity on complaints that provide specific allegations as well as contact information from the complainant, according to a press release issued Monday from the Oregon Department of Consumer & Business Services. It’s illegal for businesses to retaliate against workers who report problems or ask questions about safety, and OSHA will protect a complainant’s confidentiality if they request it.
Reports of workplace violations carry the same weight as a citizen’s tip to the police: from OSHA’s perspective, all employers are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Because on-site investigations are time and labor intensive, in most cases, OSHA’s staff simply calls a business and works with them to ensure future compliance.
Complaints in Bend
United Parcel Service in Bend (considered an essential business in Oregon) was cited twice on March 18: The complaint listed unsanitary conditions, lack of cleaning supplies and unhealthy air conditions. The second report cited employees working in close proximity to one another.
When the Source contacted UPS on Friday, a spokesperson for Bend’s UPS location said that the store limits customers to four at a time, and customers must stand 6 feet apart. Employees wear masks and wipe down surfaces with sanitizer on a regular basis, the manager said.
Other OSHA complaints seem fairly cut and dried. Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order included a detailed list of businesses that are required to close while her "stay home, save lives" order remains in place. These include places where the virus could pass easily from person to person, such as gyms and day spas.
Bend Dermatology falls into a grey area. The clinic offers cosmetic treatments like peels, waxing and facials (non-essential), but also offers more than 30 treatments listed as medical procedures. Some conditions like melanoma (skin cancer) are life threatening and need to be treated as soon as possible. But other “medical” treatments like tattoo removal should be put on hold, per Brown’s order.
Bend Dermatology had 15 complaints filed March 13 listed as COVID-19-related, ranging from a lack of personal protective equipment for employees to a lack of employee training on responsible practices during a pandemic.
Dr. Will Delgado, managing partner at Bend Dermatology, told the Source he was disheartened to receive the OSHA complaints and said that he doesn’t believe the report is accurate.
“We’ve been ahead of the curve with protecting our employees well before CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] regulations came out,” he said. “We’ve switched to telemedicine to screen clients patients before they come in; we take temperatures in the parking lot; everyone wears masks.”
“We’ve closed down 80% of what we normally offer, and had to furlough 70% of our staff, but we’re still paying benefits,” he said. “We’ve disputed those claims and anticipate that we’ll be exonerated by OSHA… We really care about our employee safety; we care so much about this community.”
Two fast food service companies in Bend, the KFC franchise on U.S. Highway 97, and all six of Dutch Bros’ drive-thru coffeehouses in Bend, were reported for employees working in close proximity.
St. Charles Bend was named on three separate days, with 10 total complaints. On March 19, the complainant wrote that the hospital administration told employees to share N95 masks and protective shields, and to wear the same masks for the duration of their shifts as they move between COVID-positive patients’ rooms into other patient rooms. On March 28, the complainant wrote that the administration and registration staff were instructed not to wear masks, though these employees are the first point of contact for suspected COVID-19 patients. Another report alleged that registration staff were moving between the Family Birthing Center and Emergency Department at the Bend hospital, where they could have been exposed to COVID-19.
"We are always dedicated to patient and caregiver safety, and we are looking closely at what has been alleged," said Lisa Goodman, public information officer for St. Charles Health System.
A union's perspective
Kevin Mealy, director of communications for the Oregon Nurses Association told the Source that in the beginning of the pandemic, St. Charles Bend was way behind other hospitals.
"It was in one of the worse positions for PPE on hand in the state," Mealy said.
"The hospital administration started listening to nurses recommendations on how to manage [the COVID-19 crisis]," he said. "They put themselves in a better position. Now they have a masks-on policy, where everyone in all units must wear a mask. They were one of the first in the state to shut down elective surgeries."
Hospitals all over Oregon are extending and reusing PPE, which was designed for single use.
"One out of seven of COVID-19-positive cases in Oregon are health care workers," he said. "If we can't protect [nurses] at bedside, we need to protect them when they get sick, with job protections and emergency leave."
To deal with the flood of complaints over the last month, OSHA has increased its staff to 75 compliance officers ready to make phone calls and inspections. The agency announced Monday that it will begin “spot checks” on employers throughout the state to make sure they are complying with Brown’s orders.
“The spot checks—which are in addition to more time-intensive, on-site inspections initiated by the division—are intended to confirm whether employers are actually doing what they are telling the division they are doing in response to complaints,” read Monday’s press release from the Oregon Department of Consumer & Business Services.
The announcement came on the heels of an article published in the Portland Tribune April 9 reporting that OSHA had issued zero citations for unsafe conditions, and issued no orders to shut down business for non-compliance.
One reason for the delay in citations from OSHA is that it normally takes weeks to conduct an investigation, and additional time to reach a verdict. OSHA gives companies time to respond and change their ways.
But even without the huge influx of complaints, OSHA’s staff usually calls employers rather than conducting a full on-site inspection. The agency has only initiated a dozen coronavirus related on-site inspections so far. Using spot checks going forward will help the agency quickly inspect more businesses.
File A Complaint With OSHA
OSHA's COVID-19 Workplace Guidance
What Businesses Need to Close?