Companies that violated Oregon Covid regulations owe state nearly $800,000

Earlier this month, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health officials ended the last workplace restrictions related to COVID. But OSHA is far from being done with the pandemic.

Several dozen citations linger and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines remain unpaid – just as they did a year ago.

Since March 2020, Oregon OSHA has issued more than 250 COVID-related citations to employers. The citations were based largely on about 32,000 complaints, 16 times more than the agency typically receives in a year. Some citations involved more than one violation, with the total fines close to $1 million.

Oregon OSHA has only collected $100,000, according to the latest agency data. Most of that money stems from violations that weren’t appealed, which accounted for more than two-thirds of the total.

Aaron Corvin, the agency’s spokesman, said before the pandemic, cases could take 18 to 30 months to resolve through the appeals process, which involves referral to an administrative law judge on the Workers’ Compensation Board. If the judge validates the citation and the company doesn’t pay, the case is sent to collections.

Nine cases have gone to collections and three of them involved willful defiance of the law, what the agency calls “willful violations.”

The slow pace of resolutions has a lot to do with the pandemic, Corvin said. In-person hearings stopped, and remote hearings have been held infrequently because of the complexity of certain cases. 

“This situation created a backlog of pre-pandemic and COVID-related cases,” Corvin said.

He said the agency and Workers’ Compensation Board are working through the process, with the agency assigning extra staff to deal with the backlog.

“We’re committed to seeing the process through, and we’re going to see how it unfolds,” Corvin said.

Companies that willfully defied COVID restrictions, including restaurants that didn’t close or allowed indoor dining, accounted for about one-fifth of the total citations. 

“The majority of the citations were not appealed. Overall there were a high number of willfuls and that penalty amount will be much higher,” Corvin said.

Willful violations account for about 90% of the unpaid fines, totaling $873,000, Corvin said.

Capitol Racquet Sports, Inc., with gyms in Salem and Keizer, was the biggest violator, with five citations in 2020 and 2021. It was fined nearly $200,000 for refusing to close despite an executive order to do so. Those cases are waiting to be resolved by the compensation board.

The second largest total fine, nearly $52,000 levied against Along Came Trudy, a Springfield restaurant, also is pending with the board. It was cited in February and May 2021, mostly for a willful violation.

But Corvin said a few cases involving willful violations recently have been resolved. 

Central Christian School in Redmond, cited in February 2022 for refusing to enforce face covering requirements for staff and students, recently settled its case and paid a fine of $8,900, reduced from an initial $10,920. 

And Oregon Ice Entertainment in Sherwood, cited in April 2021 for failing to close, also settled with the state, recently paying its $8,900 fine.

Corvin said a few other cases are close to being resolved, but he didn’t name them because they’re not officially wrapped up.

Corvin said complaints have slowed but are still higher than before the pandemic. This year the agency has received about 600 complaints a month compared with 200 in 2019.

“We are still pretty busy in terms of the non-COVID complaints we are seeing,” Corvin said. “That is due to the greater awareness the pandemic generated around Oregon OSHA’s complaint process and workplace safety and health requirements.

Although face masks are no longer required in the workplace, Oregon OSHA tweaked its work clothing rules to allow employees to wear them if they choose. And in cases in which companies require employees to be masked, the employer must pay for them. 

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Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.