From meatpacking plants to nursing homes, North Carolina workers have filed hundreds of COVID-19 complaints

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Workers across the state--from meat-processing plants to nursing homes--have filed 325 COVID-19 complaints with the North Carolina Department of Labor since March 1.

ABC11 I-Team obtained dozens of detailed complaints that described a fast food worker "made to work while reporting high fever and other symptoms", management given masks instead of frontline workers, employees not being allowed to change PPE and a quarantined patient walking freely through a senior living center.

Many of the complaints claim employers knew of multiple positive COVID-19 cases among employees and still the necessary precautions were not taken. A lack of soap and hand sanitizer, watered down cleaning products and a lack of any water were all listed in workers' complaints to the state.

A majority of the complaints were from workers in the health industry, congregate care facilities and manufacturing companies.

One complaint said workers at a medical center were exposed to COVID-19, but told to come to work unless they had symptoms.

"They are currently working with patients and other staff members, endangering others," the employee wrote in the complaint.

A similar concern was echoed in a manufacturing plant, where 100 employees work together. Sick employees continued to work, without health checks, cleaning supplies or PPE, the complaint detailed.

According to one complaint against a medical group, workers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were still working due to threats of being fired.

An employee at one medical center wrote, "Diagnosis information is hidden from the employees and paperwork is being removed from the charts. As a result, employees don't know what precautionary measures must be taken."

Nursing homes account for more than half of the state's deaths, yet multiple workers claimed proper precautions were not being taken at many facilities, based on the complaints.

"The new patients are not quarantined even though there is suspicion of them coming from another living area with active COVID-19," one nursing home employee wrote. "There is one senior with suspected COVID and supposedly under quarantine but is still seen walking the halls and the staff members interact with no knowledge of state in quarantine."

A worker at another nursing home said they were forced to reuse disposable masks until they were no longer repairable, even while caring for patients in quarantine.

COVID-19 concerns spanned across almost every industry--from grocery store employees, to construction workers, to delivery drivers.

ABC11 ITeam first looked into this issue in the beginning of April, since then, complaints have increased dramatically. Many fear as more businesses begin to reopen, complaints will continue to rise.

What's being done?

"It's a really terrible situation for thousands of people right now," said Carol Brooke, a senior attorney for the North Carolina Justice Center.

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The center has heard from concerned workers across the state for months and Brooke said it doesn't seem like much has changed.

"I think we are past time for the state to take action to protect these particular vulnerable workers, meat packing and farm workers. We have great guidance that DHHS has put out but it's just guidance and it really needs to have some teeth in it," Brooke said.

Scott Mabry, the assistant director of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Division in North Carolina explained the department sends a letter to employers after it receives complaints.

From there, employers have to respond with how these will address the complaint.

Mabry said most of the 325 COVID-19 complaints the state has received have been resolved successfully, and the department has conducted a few onsite inspections.

"Right now, the standards that we have in place, I think are sufficient for what we're trying to deal with and we use the CDC guidelines," he said.

Mabry explained even through there are no COVID-19 specific standards, the state can deliver citations to businesses under what's called a 'general duty citation.' He said the state hasn't cited any business yet.

However, not everyone thinks the current standards are efficient.

"It really shouldn't be every person for herself or himself, especially in an area that's so critical here where we know disasters are already happening, not waiting to happen," said U.S. Representative David Price (D-NC).

Price is one of the lawmakers supporting a bill that would expand standards workplaces must comply with.

Currently, state health departments across the country get their guidance from the federal agency of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA has issued guidelines on workplace safety but guidelines aren't mandatory, which leaves little teeth in state's ability to punish companies they receive complaints against.

The Every Worker Protection Act of 2020 would make it a legal obligation for all workplaces to implement comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans.

The Act would require OSHA to issue emergency temporary standards, protect workers from retaliation due to reporting health problems or using their own PPE. It expands on a previously passed act centered on health care workers.

"I think unlike some problems we are dealing with there is a remedy at hand here that would really help, and I do think the legislation that we've incorporated into the HEROS Act," Price said.

U.S. representatives passed the Act on May 15, but it will likely face a few hurdles getting passed in the Senate.

If fully passed, the act would also require employers to report all work-related COVID-19 infections and require the CDC to investigate work-related infections.

"It's way too late for that matter, too little too late is probably right in terms of some workplaces and some victims unfortunately, but this is going to be with us for a long time," Price said. "There is a long road ahead and it may be pretty late but we need to get the federal enforcement agency responsible for this engaged."

States also have the power to pass their own emergency temporary standards, but Mabry said so far only Washington has done so.

"I don't know if an emergency standard in our case would make that much difference in the way we approach how we do things or the outcome because we've gotten really good compliance from our employers that we've sent these letters out to," Mabry said.

This week OSHA is changing its enforcement response plan. Deaths and imminent danger reports will be prioritized for on-site inspections. Formal complaints will be determined on a case-to-case basis, but high-risk workplaces will be given priority.

What you can do

Brooke encourages workers who feel unsafe to first speak with other employees. She said workers have more protections if they approach employers as a group.

READ MORE: Concerned about returning to work? Here are your options

If nothing changes, she still encouraged workers to file a complaint with the state's division of employment. The final step, she said, is researching your paid leave options or unemployment qualifications.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition, a family member with COVID-19 or you don't have child care, you may have more legal options. Find out more here.
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