Advocates push for worker safety rules as COVID-19 complaints increase

Months after COVID-19 outbreaks at food processing plants in North Carolina gained national attention, businesses are still not required by law to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

More than 8,000 COVID-19 cases are connected with workplaces across the state, according to the latest data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

More than half of these cases are tied to meat and poultry processing facilities.

Santana Ocampo works on a processing line at one of these facilities. She said when the pandemic started, her employer was slow to respond.

"The problem was they prepared too late," Ocampo said. "It should've been prevented because it was chaos."

Ocampo said her work didn't start taking preventative measures until April or May and by that time, the virus was already inside.

She tested positive for COVID-19 in June and said she believes she caught it from work.

"I think all the people who got infected was from there because they didn't have preventative measures and everyone is in close contact, everyone is close, less than 6 feet," Ocampo explained.

Ocampo estimated that 5% of the 1,500 other workers at her facility also got infected.

"When they started setting cleaning procedures, hygiene, they started putting more employees, putting on face masks, paying attention to who was getting sick, it was too late in my opinion," she said.

Though Ocampo's case was mild, not all workers have been as lucky.

Some employers are 'ignoring the guidelines'



The North Carolina Department of Labor reported 26 COVID-19 work-related deaths in 2020. Sixty-five percent of the deaths that DOL reported involved ethnic minorities.

The 26 deaths are only the fatalities that the department was able to label as "work-related" based on criteria outlined by OSHA.

The number of deaths already increasing with the latest state data showing 35 COVID-19 related deaths from workplace clusters. This data is not including healthcare fatalities where 38% of the DOL deaths stemmed from.

Multiple advocacy groups throughout North Carolina have pushed for months for the state to adopt an emergency rule to protect workers during the pandemic.

"It's absolutely necessary, it's unfathomable that we're still today looking at educating and providing guidelines to employers and seeing that this is not working," said Ilana Dubester, the founder and executive director of El Vínculo Hispano. "Some employers are being conscious and doing their part, but other employers are simply ignoring the guidelines because it doesn't meet their bottom line and the consideration that these employers are expendable."

Dubester's organization has advocated for Hispanic workers since the pandemic began. She said the concerns they hear have not changed much since March.

"While they are being classified as essential workers, they are being treated like expendable workers and that's to the detriment not just to their health and the health of their families but the health of the entire community because COVID knows no border," Dubester said.

The state and federal governments have only issued voluntary guidance for employers to follow, which means there is no consequence for employers who don't comply.

Carol Brooke with the NC Justice Center said enacting a rule with enforcement measures would make an enormous difference for workers.

"If you have some sort of stick at the end of those recommendations where an employee knows that if they raise an issue with their employer and their employer isn't willing to take the steps needed to protect them that they can go to an agency and know that someone will come and inspect and cite the employer and find them and try to get the condition changed," Brooke said. "That makes an enormous difference in terms of power of workers to raise these issues and have some solution in place."

What does the Department of Labor say?



The NC Labor Department has closed more than 1,600 COVID-19 related complaints based on the most recent data reported by OSHA.

The department told the ABC11 I-Team that 151 complaints are still open, and it issued 15 COVID-19 related citations.

Advocates said the number of concerns is likely far greater as many employees fear retaliation.

The North Carolina Justice Center, El Vinculo Hispano and other groups submitted a petition to the NC Department of Labor asking for them to adopt standards to better protect workers from COVID-19.

Former NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry denied the petition last fall and refused to adopt a rule to create requirements for businesses.

Berry wrote in the letter that the department has met with employers and other agencies to spread education about the virus. She said she believed those efforts would be more beneficial than aggressive regulatory actions.

"Implementing more regulations will not eradicate the virus, and it will not eliminate the fear of employees of contracting COVID-19," Berry wrote.

Berry also referenced the department creating training materials and visiting various sites with a large number of clusters.

"While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard," Berry wrote.

The advocates behind the petition now have litigation pending over the matter in Wake County Superior Court.

"It's extremely discouraging to see that we haven't made a lot of progress in the last year and workers are still facing these serious health and safety issues in their workplace," Brooke said.

While the number of cases tied to food-processing facilities has significantly decreased since April, NCDHHS continues to report weekly cases.

Though the state reports the number of outbreaks it does not break the outbreaks down by business.

"How do we know if they are doing good or they are doing poorly in these plants? And the reasons we don't know is because the state refuses to share data," Dubester said.

Changes have been made but more are needed



Ocampo continues to work at her chicken processing facility and said things have gotten better.

"They give us everything we need for our health," Ocampo said. "They're making a lot of changes."

Despite the additional measures, she said COVID-19 just two weeks ago another employee tested positive.

"People are still getting sick. COVID-19 isn't leaving," she said.

Brooke and Dubester acknowledged that some employees have taken steps to make the workplace safer but said state and federal rules would ensure protection for everyone.

"There have been successes, but they shouldn't have to be piecemealed like this, workers should be protected by their government," Brooke said.

Advocates are hopeful the new federal administration might bring change.

President Joseph Biden issued an executive order last month requiring OSHA to consider whether emergency temporary standards are needed and to issue them by March 15.

The North Carolina Department of Labor said the state's new commissioner, Josh Dobson, is working with stakeholders to understand the department's option for issuing further requirements.

"Commissioner Dobson will review any guidance or standards issued by federal OSHA and determine whether or not any or all of those requirements are appropriate for adoption in North Carolina," a DOL spokesperson wrote in an email.
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