DOL's COVID-19 Workplace Safety Fines Approach $2.5M

By Max Kutner
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Law360 (November 6, 2020, 6:27 PM EST) -- The U.S. Department of Labor's workplace safety arm has now issued almost $2.5 million in workplace safety fines related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, releasing an expanded list Friday of violators including nursing homes, medical facilities and a food processing company.

DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has added 35 inspections to its list of 144 since the start of the pandemic. The newly disclosed inspections have resulted in $471,337 in fines, bringing the total number to $2,496,768, the agency said.

"OSHA is working around the clock to protect America's workers from COVID-19," OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt said through a DOL spokesperson. "Throughout this crisis, the incredible men and women of OSHA will continue to work diligently to keep America's workers safe and healthy."

Nearly all the establishments cited for violations have been nursing homes and medical facilities, a trend that continued Friday. All but four of the inspections on the new list appeared to be for those types of facilities.

An exception to that trend in the new list was Quality Sausage Company LLC, in Dallas, which faces three penalties for a total of $25,062. Those penalties are for reporting violations, the agency said.

The sausage company joins the list of food processing companies OSHA has fined in recent weeks, including JBS Group and Conagra Brands Inc.

New Jersey remained the state with the most violators, according to the new list. Six other states were also named: Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Texas.

The establishment on the new list facing the highest penalty is New Jersey Addiction Treatment Center LLC, which does business as Sunrise House, in Lafayette, New Jersey. The facility faces a fine of $26,988 for not having a proper respiratory protection program and not providing respirators when necessary.

Even as OSHA levies more fines, worker health and safety advocates say the agency still is not doing enough to protect workers.

Deborah Berkowitz, the Worker Health and Safety program director at the National Employment Law Project, called the latest violations "just more of the same small slap on wrists."

Berkowitz, who also was an adviser for OSHA under President Barack Obama, told Law360 by email Friday, "The agency's enforcement strategy seems more to be about trying to fool the press that the agency is really stepping up, when if you look closely at where they cited and for what, this does little to protect workers."

The new list comes days after the DOL's Office of Inspector General released a plan indicating that it was expanding its review of how OSHA and other agencies within the department had responded to the pandemic.

The plan said one audit by the inspector general "will focus on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on OSHA operations, including the number and types of inspections it has been using to safeguard workers, and OSHA's future plans to ensure safe and healthy working conditions during pandemics."

OSHA has ramped up the pace of its violations after the agency initially faced scrutiny over its allegedly slow response to complaints. The uptick in citations is largely because the agency has up to six months to complete an inspection, so the recent citations date to complaints from the spring.

Spokespeople for Sunrise House and Quality Sausage Company were not immediately available to comment.

--Additional reporting by Michael Angell and Braden Campbell. Editing by Haylee Pearl.

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