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caption: The Washington Dept. of Labor and Industries fined King County Metro $2,700 for Covid-19 safety violations affecting bus drivers.
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The Washington Dept. of Labor and Industries fined King County Metro $2,700 for Covid-19 safety violations affecting bus drivers.
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

Covid cops do thousands of undercover ‘spot checks’ to protect public health

Each day, a small squad of about 20 state inspectors visits as many as 200 Washington businesses on the sly.

“We walk into Safeway like we’re a customer,” said Tim Church, spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industries.

These inspectors normally investigate things like wage theft or workers’ compensation fraud, but now they’re following up on complaints about employers refusing to require masks or otherwise fight the coronavirus pandemic.

These Covid cops have done about 6,000 undercover “spot checks” of businesses this summer.

Their mission? To see if complaints like these are for real:

  • “No mask and no 6ft distancing. When cleaning no disinfecting chemicals are being used just using the same wet rag on all the tables.”
  • “Personnel… are no longer allowed to wear mask because it makes residents uncomfortable”
  • “Mgr and employees not wearing masks or washing hands. Social distancing not being enforced. Mgmt won't do anything.”
  • “With many construction workers on site, very few are wearing masks at all, or are wearing their masks pulled down off of their nose and mouth. This is a neighborhood with elderly people.”
  • “Armored transport delivers to as many as 40 customer locations a day… only provides one pair of gloves a day for the entire route and has not provided the route personnel with hand sanitizer for the trucks.”
  • “These contractors have been working in our apartment building and refuse to wear masks. They congregate around my doorway and I am forced within 3 ft of their unmasked face and when I asked them to wear a mask because of my immunosuppression”
  • “Cooks are shoulder to shoulder with no masks. Those taking and assembling orders and taking payment are also not wearing masks.”

Since July, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries has handled about 12,000 complaints from the public about employers skirting the state-mandated measures to beat a highly contagious coronavirus.

The complaints come in to a hotline run by the state’s Emergency Operations Center, which farms them out to the Liquor and Cannabis Board (for restaurants and bars), the Department of Licensing (for hair salons) and Labor and Industries for most other sectors.

The alleged violations have ranged from construction sites with nobody wearing masks to warehouses not sending workers home who have flu-like symptoms.

Complaints received by the Washington Dept. of Labor and Industries of employers in King and Pierce counties allegedly violating the state's pandemic-safety rules:

Labor and Industries generally gives worker complaints higher priority than those from the public, although Church did not know how many safety complaints the agency has received from employees about their workplaces.

Very few complaints result in penalties for employers, though they often do result in improved safety practices, Church said.

Church said he did not know how many fines the agency has imposed or formal inspections it has conducted related to pandemic safety.

The agency starts by contacting an employer to let them know a concern has been raised. If the problem remains after a spot check, a formal inspection and investigation may be launched. If the problem remains unaddressed after the investigation, the agency sends a “cease and desist” letter.

Only then, if the problem continues, does the agency levy a fine.

“It’s a fairly small number that end up in the ‘taking formal action’ category,” Church said. “Most do what we need them to do if they spend time with us.”

Penalties included:

  • Bradshaw Development (Anytime Fitness): $38,556. Three Anytime Fitness gyms in Selah, Union Gap and Yakima were found open July 15 despite public-health orders in hard-hit Yakima County. The gyms’ owner, Wes Bradshaw, started a GoFundMe fundraiser for legal fees to appeal the fines. “There is no greater weapon against COVID-19 than an individual’s healthy lifestyle,” Bradshaw said on his GoFundMe.
  • Lowe’s: $5,400. Lowe's Rainier Avenue South store in Seattle, an April 28 complaint alleged, did not wait two minutes between customer checkouts as needed to disinfect newly sprayed surfaces. The North Carolina company appealed the penalty, and a Washington hearings judge overturned it. Church said Lowe's poorly disinfected surfaces were deemed to affect shoppers, not workers, and so were outside the agency’s workplace-safety mandate.
  • Flower World: $4,200. The Maltby florist had told workers in June they would not be allowed to wear masks and that customers would not be required to do so. The shop’s owner later told the Daily Herald his workers were wearing masks but that he planned to challenge the legality of the state’s mask mandate.
  • King County Metro: $2,700. Bus drivers, at least two of whom have died of Covid-19, complained March 31 of insufficient cleaning, distancing, fever screening and provision of masks, and the transit agency was fined July 15. Metro is now installing plexiglass screens next to drivers, hiring 23 new staff to do more frequent bus cleaning, carrying no more than 18 passengers on a bus and planning to install temperature-screening kiosks for employees. Metro has until Sept. 30 to fix the problems identified by Labor and Industries.
  • Crisis Connections: $2,400. In a complaint received June 8, call-screeners said they had to sit cramped together without masks and share headsets and microphones without disinfection. “We have addressed all of the concerns in there and put in place really regimented cleaning schedules,” Lauren Rigert with Crisis Connections told KUOW. She said the problems stemmed from the chaos of moving offices near the start of the pandemic.
  • American Seafoods: $1,800. Workers were not consistently required to wear masks, according to a June 8 complaint. Since late May, at least 110 crew members on three of the company’s factory trawlers have contracted Covid-19. An American Seafoods spokesperson did not respond by KUOW’s deadline, except to say all the company’s boats are currently busy fishing in Alaska.

In King and Pierce counties, Labor and Industries has received 377 complaints about alleged violations of the state’s mask requirements and other pandemic safety rules, according to data obtained with a KUOW public records request.

Out of those complaints, 113 were against the construction industry – more than any other sector.

"It’s not as visible in most other workplaces," said Mandi Kime, safety director for the construction-industry group Associated General Contractors of Washington. "If somebody’s driving by a construction site, they’ll see if people are wearing masks or not."

Inspectors found violations at 12 construction companies, nearly half the total violations in the two counties.

“While there have been complaints, many have not resulted in citations,” Kime said . “No AGC contractors have been written violations so far due to the diligence of our membership and my team.”

Kime said the construction industry has not had a disproportionate number of Covid-19 cases.

While most complaints released to KUOW focused on businesses not protecting their employees or customers from the widespread virus, one person had the opposite concern.

“Mandatory masking and the increase of CO2 causing headaches, dizziness, nearly passing out,” that person complained.

A Labor and Industries staffer contacted the person to correct the mask misinformation.

“Left message with complainant and sent email regarding the fact that surgical masks are not going to increase CO2," the staffer noted.