A record number of complaints alleging employers aren’t following rules meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have been filed with Oregon’s worker safety watchdog.
But state records show few penalties have been imposed against employers that have allegedly disobeyed Gov. Kate Brown’s orders on social distancing and other measures.
Nearly three months after those orders were issued, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has logged 4,898 complaints alleging violations.
About half of the complaints came within two weeks of Brown’s March 23 stay-home order. That is about equal to what the state normally gets in an entire year, according to Oregon OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin. Those complaints usually concern violations such as lack of safety harnesses and unsafe electrical wiring.
The state is processing 408 open complaints against Salem employers, according to agency records. Oregon OSHA has resolved another 105 complaints (some employers have drawn multiple complaints against multiple employers).
Glamour Salon is the only Salem employer to face a penalty from the agency. In May, salon owner Lindsey Graham was assessed a $14,000 penalty for opening her salon in defiance of the order. Graham is contesting the penalty by asserting that the salon’s stylists are independent contractors, not employees.
The other 104 resolved complaints were closed after a letter or phone call from agency officials who determined they didn’t violate OSHA regulations.
“These complaints are essentially tips,” Corvin said.
After getting a complaint, OSHA will give the employer a chance to respond, he said. The person filing the complaint – if known – will get contacted to review the business response. If the employer ignores the agency’s inquires or doesn’t give a credible response, an on-site inspection can follow, he said.
While OSHA is responsible for enforcing the governor’s orders that mandate social distancing and increased sanitation in the workplace, the complaints show some confusion about what’s required.
Records show that OSHA didn’t act on some complaints because they weren’t in the agency’s scope. For instance, a senior citizen complained after expecting employees at Aaron’s, located at 2819 Lancaster Dr. N.E., to bring a TV outside for pickup.
Citing a lack of jurisdiction, the agency also took no action on a complaint that employees and customers at the Goodwill Industries, located at 3235 Portland Rd N.E., weren’t wearing masks, which isn’t required under the orders. Additionally, the agency declined to take action on a complaint alleging “Kate Brown is destroying the constitution and going to get people hurt.”
Records show a similar pattern with other complaints alleging that Salem employers aren’t following social distancing or sanitation requirements.
After the complaint is made, Aaron Colmone, OSHA enforcement manager in Salem, writes the employer, describing the complaint and requesting a response.
“No inspection is planned at this time; however we request that you investigate the alleged hazards and make corrections and modifications,” the standard agency letter says.
The agency records showed that employers responded with emails describe how they had already established handwashing protocol, offered facemasks to employees or staggered work schedules. Some included internal memos as well as pictures of signs.
In such cases, OSHA concluded that there was no violation.
Albertina Kerr, a Salem nonprofit that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, was subject to a complaint in April alleging that employees were working in close proximity. The nonprofit responded with an email detailing steps it had taken to facilitate telecommuting and increased sanitation.
Matthew Warner, human resources officer, said the complaint process was all “very reasonable.”
Another complaint alleged Salem Health didn’t have adequate personal protective gear for employees and wasn’t following distancing rules. The health care provider responded by describing its plan to sterilize and reuse masks with UV lights and to triage the use of the personal protective equipment.
“The safety of our employees, patients and community is at the core of everything we do,” the hospital said in a statement to the Salem Reporter. “We are deeply proud of the commitment and compassion demonstrated by all our staff during this unprecedented time.”
Government employers in Salem have also faced complaints including the Oregon Youth Authority, the Salem Area Mass Transit District and Oregon Office of Public Defense Services. The complaints have been resolved by OSHA. A spokesman for the Oregon Youth Authority declined to comment further but noted that it views OSHA as a partner and invites it into facilities to address safety. Representatives from the others stressed that they had safety measures in place.
Colmone closed the correspondence with each employer with a similar letter.
“You indicated that the complaint has been investigated and necessary action has been taken to correct any hazards identified,” he wrote. “I appreciate the efforts that you have taken to assure safe and healthful working conditions for your employees.”
Corvin said that field managers use their professional judgment on whether what employers are telling the agency is credible. He said it’s helpful when employers back up their claims with documents.
“By and large, we are seeing (employers) moving in the right direction,” he said. “But it’s true there are outliers.”
Several employers in Oregon have faced fines for violating the pandemic restrictions.
On April 20, NW Office Liquidations in Portland was fined $175 for making appointments with customers in violation of state orders.
On May 1, Honey Suckles Lingerie in Portland was penalized $100 for operating in violation of the governor’s order.
On May 4, National Frozen Foods Corp. in Albany was fined $2,000 after the state determined that employees were working within inches of each other for extended periods of time even after workers tested positive for COVID-19.
On May 14, Casey’s Restaurant in Roseburg was fined nearly $15,000 for providing dine-in service in violation of state orders.
On May 22, Masterbrand Cabinets in Grants Pass was penalized $630 for not fully implementing social distancing requirements.
On June 1, City Liquidators in Portland was penalized $280 for violating safety standards. During a hearing of the House Business and Labor Committee in May, Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator, testified before legislators last month that the agency had done over 3,000 “spot checks.” He described them as informal visits where OSHA representatives check if retail and service businesses are complying.
“We were able to make those observations very quickly without actually entering the business or without doing more than stepping across the public threshold,” he said.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.