Businesses have plans to keep workers safe. Are the protections enough?

Safety is a critical issue for workers and employers in the Dayton region as the state’s economy reopens under the gradual lifting of restrictions Ohio put in place to battle COVID-19.

“As businesses start to reopen and people return to work, we are concerned with a rise in cases across the county,” said Jeff Cooper, health commissioner for Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County. “We remind people the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask when you come in contact with others, wash your hands frequently, and stay home when you are sick.”

On Thursday Cooper announced 173 COVID-19 cases linked to multiple Montgomery County workplaces since April, including the Community Blood Center, Crocs Distribution Center, Sugar Creek Brandworthy Food Solutions, Dryden Road Pentecostal Church, Friendship Village, and Respiratory and Nursing Center of Dayton. Those cases are among the county's 1,118 total COVID-19 cases.

Outbreaks among employees also have occurred at multiple area nursing homes, Mercy Health-Springfield Regional Medical Center and the Dole Fresh Vegetables plant in Clark County.

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“The threat of COVID-19 is not gone,” Cooper said. “And in many ways there is even a greater risk because you are now more likely to encounter someone with COVID-19, which increases your chances of infection.”

The nationwide shutdown threw the country into recession and led to more more than 45 million people filing for unemployment in the last 13 weeks, including 1.5 million new filings in the week ending June 13. In Ohio 32,788 new claims were filed that week, bringing the total to 1.36 million new unemployment claims in Ohio during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The official national unemployment rate was 13.3 percent in May, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the true rate was probably 3 percentage points higher because of problems in how unemployed workers have been classified in monthly jobs reports since March.

Last month Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine began lifting restrictions that had closed many businesses since March. States across the country also allowed businesses to reopen but health and safety rules vary widely across the U.S.

Twenty states are experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases that health officials say are due both to increased testing and community spread as people have more contact with others and some people ignore recommendations to wear masks and socially distance.

“Returning to work safely: You want to try to protect yourself as much as possible by following all the guidance,” said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County. “We start with the premise that all employees must wear masks.”

Investigating complaints

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces worker safety regulations nationwide. Local public health officials have traditionally enforced health and safety rules for restaurants, grocery stores and other food-handling operations, as well as overseeing other public health matters such reporting and control of infectious disease.

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Ohio’s county public health officials are now charged with enforcing the state’s COVID-19 health and safety rules. They can get court orders to enforce those rules, although Suffoletto said he believes local health officials have gained compliance from all companies in Montgomery County without court action.

Suffoletto said public health employees have visited 28 businesses in Montgomery County where there were complaints about COVID-19-related safety practices. He said 26 of them were resolved without the need for enforcement action or penalties, while the remaining ones are in the process of being resolved. Investigations are pending on two.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and the AFL-CIO have called for a new OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard requiring that companies have comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans. Brown’s idea has not been approved by Congress, and on June 11 a federal appeals court denied the union’s petition to compel OSHA to adopt the standard.

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, OSHA has been taking decisive action to protect America’s workers,” said Scott Allen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the agency. “OSHA has enforcement tools available to protect workers from coronavirus in the workplace. Enforcement tools available to OSHA include existing safety and health standards, like the Personal Protective Equipment Standard and the Respiratory Protection Standard, as well as the statutory General Duty Clause. Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time.”

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A list of complaints received by OSHA shows that most of the COVID-19 related complaints in Ohio involve lack of social distancing or companies not providing personal protective equipment for employees, particularly face masks, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of the data. Many complaints, particularly during March and April, involved health care providers failing to equip employees with adequate protective gear, including the N95 respirator masks deemed essential for people in close contact with sick patients.

A number of complaints involved companies that didn’t send sick workers home or that were not informing employees that they may have had contact with a worker testing positive for COVID-19.

Statewide OSHA received 229 COVID-19-related complaints as of June 9, Allen said. Most — 208 of them — have been closed, either because the employer mitigated the concern or no violation was found. OSHA is investigating the complaints that remain open, he said.

Complete data on COVID-19 complaints was unavailable from Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County and OSHA and records requests submitted by the Dayton Daily News are pending.

Balancing health and economy

Officials are struggling to calibrate the need to maintain safety in a huge variety of workplace settings with a desire to ease the economic pain of the shutdown.

Some people might be afraid to return to work because of their age or health issues like immune disorders or diabetes that make them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, said Zach Schiller, research director for Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal-leaning think tank. Or, he said, the shutdown of schools and child care centers leaves them without someone to care for their kids.

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Brown has called for President Donald Trump’s administration to increase testing, invest more in contact tracing, and enact stronger workplace protection standards as companies reopen.

“People want to go back to work, they want to go back to school, they want to be able to go to the grocery store without being terrified,” Brown said in an April news release announcing his plan. “We need a real plan to reopen the economy safely — because if we don’t do it safely, we’re just going to have to close it again.

Last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package that included extending beyond July the CARES Act’s extra $600 in weekly unemployment compensation, adding hazard pay for essential workers and funding more testing and contact tracing. That bill has not been considered in the U.S. Senate, where Republican leaders have focused on adding liability protections for employers, a move opposed by Democrats.

Some people argue that the extra $600 in unemployment insurance is a disincentive to work because it allows some people to be paid more than they do in their jobs.

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Ohio law requires that if an employer offers a laid off worker a job, the person typically must take it or risk losing unemployment benefits unless there is good cause to reject the offer. On May 5 Policy Matters and the Ohio Poverty Law Center asked DeWine to expand the list of reasons for which people could turn down an offer and still get unemployment.

On Thursday DeWine did just that, issuing an executive order saying that during the pandemic state of emergency people on unemployment could refuse a job offer if:

  • A medical professional says they are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and telework options aren't available.
  • They are 65 or older.
  • There is tangible evidence of health and safety violations by the employer that prevent social distancing, hygiene or wearing protective equipment.
  • There is potential exposure to COVID-19 and the person is subject to a quarantine.
  • To care for a family member with COVID-19 or in quarantine.

“We are glad to see that Governor DeWine has taken action to protect Ohioans who are at risk from COVID-19,” said Schiller, who was disappointed that an exception wasn’t also made for people who can’t return to work due to lack of child care

“ODJFS needs to ensure that those who lose regular unemployment benefits because their child care isn’t available can easily apply for federal benefits to which they may be entitled,” Schiller said.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is working on a proposal to give people $450 a week to go back to work, an incentive that would last through July.

His concern is that the economic recovery will be slowed because some people can make more money on unemployment, said Emmalee Kalmbach, press secretary for Portman. For those who can safely return to work, Kalmbach said Portman wants to make sure there is not a financial disincentive to do so.

Schiller said anyone in Ohio making more on unemployment than working wasn’t making enough money to live on in their job. He said the extra money helped stabilize families and injected needed cash into the economy.

Schiller argues that if people feel safe, they won’t mind returning to work, and notes that with tens of millions of people unemployed, it’s not like companies don’t have a large labor pool to choose from.

“I would advise (Sen. Portman) to look at how many people are unemployed and how many jobs there are,” Schiller said. “The number of people who are going back to work is a fraction of the number of people who are unemployed.”

Rea Hederman, vice president of policy for conservative-leaning think tank the Buckeye Institute, said Portman’s idea for a back-to-work incentive is a good one. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some businesses are having trouble persuading workers to return, he said.

“Putting money into businesses’ and peoples’ pockets has been able to make the downturn less severe and will make the recovery stronger,” Hederman said. “I think we want to make sure that we are not discouraging people to come back to the labor force when the jobs are ready for them.”

But Hederman also said workers who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 have a legitimate reason to not return to work and companies should wait to call them back.

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Rebecca L. Reindel, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, said some companies offer people hazard pay in an effort to get them to return to work.

“We call it essential worker pay. If you have to work during a pandemic, getting extra money to do it is not unreasonable,” Reindel said. “It is not enough to just pay people to go back to work. Any extra pay has to be inextricably linked to strong safety measures.”

State rules for safety

As the doors have opened at many businesses, state rules on social distancing, facial coverings and sanitization remain in place for employers and workers. The state is not requiring customers and clients to wear masks but companies may choose to do so.

The state has lists of industry-specific mandatory rules and recommendations designed to thwart the spread of COVID-19. Strict rules also are in place when a COVID-19 case is discovered in the workplace, including requiring immediate reporting to the local health district, contact tracing, deep sanitation of the workplace and closure of the business if necessary.

While rules vary depending on the businesses, all companies must follow five protocols, according to the Ohio Department of Health. They are:

  • Face coverings are required at all times for employees and recommended for clients and customers. Exceptions include issues related to health and industry safety standards.
  • Mandatory health assessments must be done by employers and employees.
  • Good hygiene, including hand washing, sanitizing and social distancing, are required.
  • The workplace must be cleaned and sanitized throughout the workday and at the close of business or between shifts.
  • Limits are required on the number of people inside to meet social distancing guidelines.

Many companies and health care organizations struggled to obtain personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, as well as thermometers and sanitizing wipes. Those shortages have eased, but some are still having a hard time finding those materials, said Roger Geiger, Ohio state executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. In late May the group surveyed members and found that 82 percent said they were confident in their ability to handle employee health and safety concerns.

He and Angelia Erbaugh, president of the Dayton Region Manufacturers Association, both said businesses are working hard to make workplaces safe.

“You’re going to have exceptions. I don’t care what profession you pick, there are going to be bad apples,” Geiger said. “The vast majority are in the camp of complying and wanting to comply and recognizing they have an obligation to protect their employees and their customers.”

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“Manufacturers are used to understanding and deploying methods to ensure the safety of their employees; they quickly adapted their operations to comply with the additional safety measures necessitated by the pandemic,” Erbaugh said.

This month OSHA issued new health and safety guidance for COVID-19 and urged companies to plan for potential hazards related to it. The agency said employers should offer employees additional safety and health training, and it included advice on safety practices to help prevent infection, including temperature checks and health screenings, COVID-19 testing, the use of personal protective equipment, hygiene and housekeeping practices, social distancing, identifying and isolating sick workers.

OSHA’s guidance said companies should encourage sick workers to stay home.

“There are a lot of employers that are being very responsible in their protections of workers and there are some that are not,” said Mike Gillis, communications specialist for AFL-CIO Ohio. “This is one time when having a union really makes a difference because union workers can demand a safe workplace at the bargaining table.”

Reindel said it is important for workers to document problems complying with safety rules, and collect information about exposures and infections to provide to local public health officials and OSHA.

“This disease is wildly contagious. It’s serious,” Reindel said. “You see in some of these plants people are still working shoulder to shoulder.”

OSHA’s Allen said employees who face retaliation for complaining have recourse through the whistle-blower protection laws.

“OSHA reminds employers that it is illegal to retaliate against workers because they report unsafe and unhealthful working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic,” Allen said. “Acts of retaliation can include terminations, demotions, denials of overtime or promotion, or reductions in pay or hours.”

Resources for safe return to work

Ohio Department of Health COVID-19 workplace regulations and recommendations:

Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County COVID-19 information: 937-225-6217

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration Return to Work Guidance:

OSHA Whistleblower hotline: 1-800-321-OSHA

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