Tons of of complaints about unsafe workplaces in Wisconsin as COVID circumstances spiked
“Employees are forced to work with other sick employees,” said a December complaint to the US Department of Labor about a Madison laundry service. “Employees are allowed to come to work with COVID-19 symptoms.”
It’s one of nearly 400 COVID-related complaints filed with the federal government in Wisconsin from October through mid-March.
“Too many front-line workers were unnecessarily exposed to COVID,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “This pandemic has exposed so many things that are wrong in our workplaces.”
Many employees are returning to their jobs across Wisconsin as the state physically returns to work amid widespread vaccination. But new records show how many of those who never left their jobs felt they did not have the luxury of the simplest security needs in the jobs where they were touted as essential.
In just a few months, Wisconsin workers notified federal labor safety regulators more than four dozen times that their employers were either asking or allowing employees to continue working despite symptoms of COVID-19. Most complaints were handled without an inspection or more than one email dialogue with the employer, records show.
Employers we have contacted usually reject these types of allegations – two cases for this story and one case in a previous report. The aforementioned laundry service said federal regulators had ruled the above complaint was unfounded. There was no inspection.
Working when sick was just one of the few claims that the documents repeated many times. At other times, employees said their bosses didn’t tell them when they were in close contact with a COVID-19 case. Quarantines were not carried out properly. Masking and social distancing were poorly, if at all, followed.
Colin Good, a Madison area labor attorney who handles a handful of COVID-era cases for employees in similar situations, says the issues highlighted in the complaints underscore one of the lasting lessons learned from the pandemic.
“Employers who only use employees as workers and not as people are missing the point.”
Hundreds of complaints filed at the height of the pandemic
As COVID-19 cases spiked in the fall and early winter of late 2020, record inquiries revealed that employees and the public (and on a few occasions OSHA itself, often in the case of deaths or media coverage of outbreaks) filed complaints of COVID security breaches with OSHA file by the hundreds in Wisconsin expiring in December and early 2021.
The lion’s share of the complaints fall in and around the state’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison – nearly 100 of them in the Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, the most populous counties in Wisconsin.
While some industries such as healthcare, food processing, and restaurants emerged as recurring problem areas among the complaints, the data spanned a wide range of very different industries.
A law firm in Milwaukee where a complaint was filed with alleged employees allowing alleged employees to process symptoms. A similar problem in a salon in Waukesha. A lack of proper masking in a coating service company in Reedsburg. A case pending in Beloit at a local restaurant opened two days after this investigation into a COVID death that saw staff say they needed to work off symptoms.
The vast majority of complaints related to missing or unenforced safety protocols late into the pandemic after the CDC had spent months establishing best practices.
“I’m surprised how many industries have seen this,” said Good after reviewing the data. “It affected every group of employees, it affected every type of industry.”
Especially in the area of workers who have to keep working when sick, Good stressed the legal protection that should prevent this – and encouraged workers to be aware of their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Inspections lag behind complaints due to disorientation
Only 12% (49 out of 393) of COVID complaints resulted in an inspection, records show. An OSHA spokesman said the rest would have been handled through an informal process set out in a 2019 manual, which mostly included a letter to the employer – and often no contact with employees.
Throughout the pandemic, federal officials cited Wisconsin workplaces only four times for violating the “general duty” clause for employers to keep workers safe – the mechanism used to enforce COVID safety protocols.
Limited OSHA inspections and minimal oversight during the pandemic aren’t unique to Wisconsin. A Wall Street Journal national investigation in March tracked hundreds of deaths with likely links to workplace outbreaks and uncovered a nationwide pattern where OSHA took minimal steps and few inspections to process COVID complaints.
The trend is due in part to the agency’s strengths, which have historically focused on chemical and physical hazards in workplaces, not the spread of infectious diseases. But the agency has also been more lenient across the board under the Trump administration, issuing fewer quotes to companies overall.
Under the Biden administration, enforcement of COVID security has been stepped up with more inspections and citations, as well as the introduction of a temporary emergency standard for COVID-19 that would allow officials to take action against companies. The mandatory standard, which goes into effect on June 21, only applies to healthcare environments, while all other industries are subject to non-mandatory guidelines.
Proponents, however, say that in order to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks in workplaces – amid potentially unforeseen pandemics – OSHA needs to introduce permanent infectious disease guidelines for employers, a standard that is currently completely lacking.
“There needs to be a comprehensive look at the changes that are needed to keep work safe,” said Bloomingdale. “The fact that we didn’t have a corporate infectious disease standard to really use the workers without real protection. That’s unacceptable.”
The problem doesn’t just affect workers, said attorney Good. Unsafe workplaces for employees often mean dangerous environments for the public.
“It’s not just workers’ concerns that they are supposed to be addressing, but also the public who are accessing their restaurants or their factories. So it’s a really big problem,” he said. “We have not seen any regulatory action against any company that clearly violates these OSHA statutes.”