Los Angeles County officials attribute a dramatic decline in COVID-19 death and case rates among Blacks and Latinos over the past two months to aggressive workplace health enforcement and the opening of tip lines to report violations.
Now, officials intend to cement those gains by creating workplace councils among employees trained to look for COVID-19 prevention violations and correct or report them — without fear of being fired or punished.
Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety and health authority, is overwhelmed with complaints and tips about COVID-19 violations, and the county’s health investigators — there were officially 346 of them as of last Friday — can’t possibly keep tabs on all of Los Angeles’ more than 240,000 businesses, labor advocates say.
The councils could help keep Los Angeles from backsliding on its progress in mitigating cases and racial disparities in the fall as more businesses are likely to reopen, said Tia Koonse, a researcher with the UCLA Labor Center and co-author of an assessment of the workplace council proposal. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve an ordinance this month requiring businesses to permit employees to form the councils, which would troubleshoot compliance issues and report to the health department when necessary.
Critics, including many business leaders, say the measure will create more red tape at the worst possible time for the economy. But labor groups and some businesses say it is crucial to fighting the pandemic. Workers around the country have been sacked or reprimanded for complaining about COVID-related safety violations, and laws protecting them are spotty.
“Workers have a right to be in a safe space and shouldn’t face any retaliation” for noting poor practices, said Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Public Health Department. Low-wage workers have been “tremendously disadvantaged” by having to work outside the home in contact with other people, often without sufficient protection, she said.
During the upsurge of COVID cases that followed Memorial Day weekend family gatherings and business openings, Latinos in Los Angeles were dying at a rate more than four times higher than that of whites, while Blacks were twice as likely as whites to die of the disease. Two months later, death rates among Blacks and Latinos had fallen by more than half and were approaching the rate for whites, according to age-adjusted data from the county health department.
While four times as many Latinos as whites were reported COVID-positive in late July, the Latino case rates were only 64% higher by mid-September. The positivity rate among Blacks was 60% higher than that of whites in late July, but the disparity had waned by mid-September.
Experts can’t be certain that any one policy is responsible for the decline in deaths among Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles — and state and county rates have declined for the entire population in recent weeks. But Ferrer attributed the progress to her department’s focus on workplace enforcement of health orders, which include rules about physical distancing, providing face coverings for workers and requiring face coverings for customers.
“If you’re in violation, at this point we can either issue citations, or there are cases where we just close the place down because the violations are egregious,” she said.
The sharp racial disparities that characterized the pandemic from the beginning are under even more scrutiny now that California has become the first state to make “health equity” a factor in its decisions to allow expanded reopening.
Large counties may not advance toward full reopening until their most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and not just the county as a whole, meet or are lower than the targeted levels of disease. The criteria prod local governments to invest more in testing, contact tracing and education in poor neighborhoods with high levels of the disease.
Ferrer’s focus on workplaces crystallized during a crackdown on Los Angeles Apparel, a clothing factory that had pivoted to face mask manufacturing during the pandemic. Despite the ready inventory of masks, an outbreak at the factory resulted in at least 300 cases — and four deaths.
The health department, acting on a tip from community health centers flooded with sick Los Angeles Apparel workers, shut down the factory on June 27. That action highlighted the need to bring the government and labor unions together to fight the pandemic, said Jim Mangia, CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, a chain of community health centers in South L.A.
“At St. John’s, almost all of our patients are the working poor,” Mangia said. “They were getting infected at work and bringing it home to their families, and I think intervening at the workplace is what really made all the difference.”
Early in the pandemic, Ferrer had also set up an anonymous complaint line for employees who want to report workplace violations. It gets about 2,000 calls a week, she said. As of Oct. 10, the department’s website lists 132 workplaces that have had three or more confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a total of 2,191 positives. Another table dated Oct. 7 lists 124 citations — mostly to gyms and places of worship — for failing to comply with a health officer order.
“Fortunately, we’re not like Cal/OSHA, in the sense that it doesn’t take us months to complete an investigation,” Ferrer said. “We’re able to move more swiftly under the health officer orders to actually make sure that we’re protecting workers.”
Public health councils are the next phase in Ferrer’s plan to keep workers safe. The plan stemmed from the response of Overhill Farms, a frozen-food factory in Vernon, California, after an outbreak of more than 20 cases and one death. The factory and its temporary job agency were hit with more than $200,000 in proposed penalties from Cal/OSHA in September, but before the fines landed, the factory leadership was already responding by beginning to hold meetings with workers to improve safety there.
“They found that the workers helped them bring down infection rates and helped solve problems,” said Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a worker advocacy organization.
While it’s not exactly a feel-good story about corporate beneficence, the turnaround at Overhill Farms added credence to the benefits of workplace councils, said Koonse of UCLA.
No company would have to spend more than 0.44% of its payroll cost on the health councils, she estimated.
Still, the idea has gotten a mixed reception from businesses. In an Aug. 24 statement, CEO Tracy Hernandez of the L.A. County Business Federation wrote that the proposal would add “burdensome and convoluted programs that will further hinder an employer’s ability to meet demands, get back on their feet, and adequately serve their employees and customers.”
But Jim Amen, president of the eight-store Super A Foods grocery chain, said businesses should welcome the councils as a way to keep lines of communication open. Such practices have kept infection rates low at his stores, even without a mandate, Amen said.
“All I know is, for Super A, our employees are heavily involved in everything we do,” Amen said.
Labor groups see the councils as a crucial way for workers to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.
“In low-wage industries like the garment industry, workers coming together gets them fired,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, a nonprofit that mainly serves immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
While disparities are narrowing in L.A. County, some shops are still unsafe and potential whistleblowers aren’t confident their reports to the county’s tip line are being acted on, she said.
“We continue to get calls from our members who are sick, have COVID and are hospitalized,” Nuncio said. “And the most obvious location for them to have been infected is in their workplace, because so many precautions are not being taken.”
Anna Almendrala is a Correspondent with Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. KHN data reporter Hannah Recht contributed to this article.
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