By Jeff South
Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism

Forced to buy their own face masks and serve customers who refused to wear one. Kept in the dark about co-workers who died of COVID-19 and ordered to work shoulder to shoulder with others who tested positive. Threatened with disciplinary action if they told government inspectors or the public that an employee had contracted the coronavirus.

Those are among more than 1,450 “valid complaints” that Virginia workers have lodged against their employers’ response to COVID-19, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Employees are told this epidemic situation is no big deal, don't waste paper towels or wash hands too frequently, and employees do not have to wear masks,” a machine shop worker said in a phone call to workplace inspectors.

The pandemic has brought a dramatic increase in worker safety complaints, but also a steep decline in workplace inspections since the crisis began in March 2020, according to an exclusive analysis of worker safety records by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism.

Worker complaints soared by 83% in 2020 from the previous year, while state health officials conducted 24% fewer inspections, according to the VCIJ analysis.

Workers and a federal watchdog say the lack of adequate oversight has left employees in front-line jobs more vulnerable to infection and serious health consequences.

Despite employees’ immediate alarm for their workplace safety as the pandemic spread, most companies were directed to correct problems voluntarily, without an inspection. State penalties were rare: Fines paid by companies found violating COVID-19 safety rules have averaged about $2,750.

Moreover, OSHA, which monitors federal government workplaces in Virginia, did not cite any employers in the state until June, according to federal records.

Advocates for workers’ rights say they are not surprised by the prevalence of COVID-19 complaints coupled with the paucity of workplace fines. Adam Ryan, a co-founder of the group New River Workers Power, said employers and government officials may express concerns for the health of employees, but their actions tell a different story.

“None of them are really doing anything on behalf of workers,” said Ryan, who works for a big-box retailer near Roanoke. “It’s a lot of just showboating and trying to have good PR rather than any effective regulations.”

Largely because of workers’ concerns about COVID-19, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry received a total of 1,856 workplace complaints in 2020, according to Jennifer Rose, who oversees DOLI’s efforts to help employers comply with safety and health standards.

At the same time, the pandemic made it more difficult and less likely for government officials to inspect workplaces. Rose said DOLI’s Virginia Occupational Safety and Health program performed 1,668 inspections last year, down from 2019 despite the rise in complaints.

Citations don’t necessarily mean fines

Virginia was ahead of the curve in requiring employers to protect workers against the coronavirus.

In July 2020, DOLI’s Safety and Health Codes Board approved an emergency temporary standard on preventing COVID-19, mandating personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation, social distancing and other precautions in the workplace. Virginia was the first state to adopt such measures.

On Jan. 27, Virginia’s COVID-19 workplace safety and health rules became permanent.

As of Aug. 13, VOSH has issued citations alleging that about 70 employers broke COVID-related rules, government records indicate.

The cited workplaces included 12 nursing homes, three hospitals and six other health-care service providers, as well as government offices, retail stores and sundry businesses. Two businesses — a pet store and a janitorial service — each have been cited twice.

But only 25 of those employers have paid fines. In 24 cases, DOLI did not impose a financial penalty or dropped the fine during negotiations with employers. In 23 other settlements, fines on average were reduced by more than one-third.

Forty-nine of the cases have been closed. The average fine: $2,749.

In their defense, employers faced a host of difficulties protecting workers from the coronavirus, including supply-chain disruptions that caused “widespread shortages” of PPE, according to a government report.

Moreover, epidemiologists say that it’s difficult to pinpoint where a person contracts the virus. Just because a worker gets COVID-19 does not prove the infection spread at the worker’s office or job site.

The federal government has fined 1 Virginia employer

DOLI regulates all private-sector and state- and local-government workplaces in Virginia under a plan approved by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA regulates all federal workplaces, U.S. Postal Service operations, military bases and military contractors in Virginia.

OSHA’s first COVID-related citations in Virginia involved the Defense Commissary Agency operations in Norfolk on June 8 and in Virginia Beach on July 23. The agency did not fine the commissaries, which sell food and other products to military personnel and their families.

The agency has only issued one fine: a $1,658 levy against a Hampton Roads shipyard in June. Inspectors said the shipyard, a federal contractor, committed a minor recordkeeping violation.

Restaurants, offices, factories, hospitals — even a strip club

Virginia workers can file a workplace safety or health complaint online or by phone. If it involves a federal employer, the complaint goes to OSHA; otherwise, it goes to VOSH. Officials at OSHA or VOSH then determine whether the complaint is valid.

To be valid, “there must be reasonable grounds to believe that either a violation of the OSH Act or OSHA standard that exposes employees to physical harm exists, or death or serious injury exists,” said Kimberly Darby, a public information officer for the U.S. Department of Labor.

The appropriate agency then contacts the employer. If there is a “satisfactory response from the employer,” the case can be closed, Darby said. If the employer’s response is unsatisfactory, she said, the agency will open an inspection.

Since the start of the pandemic, workers have filed 1,459 valid complaints against Virginia employers, according to OSHA data through July 30. Only seven states have logged more complaints.

More than 600 complaints said Virginia employers were not providing adequate masks for workers or requiring people to wear them.

“Employees who are issued N95 facemasks are required to use the same mask for months,” a hospital staff member said. “Masks are periodically sent for sanitation but the same mask is used indefinitely even when working with known COVID-19 patients.”

About 400 complaints cited a lack of social distancing. “Employer is not maintaining ten feet of physical distance between performers and patrons due to lap dances in the back room,” a worker at a “gentlemen’s club” reported.

In at least 200 instances, employees said they were not told about colleagues who tested positive for the coronavirus. Many employees said they felt pressured to keep coronavirus cases a secret.

“A housekeeping employee is currently on a ventilator diagnosed with COVID-19 and two patients have tested positive for COVID-19,” a worker at a nursing home said. But the complainant added, “Employees are told they would face disciplinary action if they told anyone of the COVID-19 positive employee.”

Of the 1,459 COVID-related workplace complaints in Virginia, about 100 led to formal investigations. Most were closed without an inspection. Instead, VOSH contacted the employer and got the problem resolved, Rose said.

“When an adequate response is received from the employer and the complainant does not dispute or object to the response,” she said, “the complaint is closed.”

This story was written, edited and distributed by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism.