‘Needlessly exposed’: Few inspections, hundreds of complaints about unsafe workplaces in Wisconsin as COVID cases spiked

“Employees are made to work around other sick employees,” a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor about a Madison laundry service read in December. “Employees are allowed to come to work with COVID-19 symptoms.”

It’s one of nearly 400 COVID-related complaints filed with the federal government from October through mid-March in Wisconsin, in records released to News 3 Investigates that detail one of the more complete pictures of COVID concerns in workplaces available in the state.

“Too many frontline workers were exposed to COVID needlessly,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Stephanie Bloomingdale said. “This pandemic showed a light on so many things that are wrong in our workplaces.”

Many employees are returning to their job sites across Wisconsin as the state gets physically back to work amid widespread vaccinations. But new records show just how many of those who never left their job sites felt like they didn’t have the luxury of the barest safety necessities at the workplaces where they were touted as essential.

More than four dozen times in the space of just a few months, Wisconsin workers told federal regulators at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration their employers were either asking or allowing employees to keep working through COVID-19 symptoms. Most of the complaints were handled without an inspection or anything more than an emailed dialogue with the employer, records show.

Employers contacted by News 3 typically deny those types of allegations–in two cases for this story, and once in a previous report. The laundry service referenced above said federal regulators had decided the complaint listed above had no merit. There was no inspection.

Working while sick was just one of a handful of claims frequently repeated throughout the documents. Other times, employees said their bosses weren’t telling them when they’d had close contact with a COVID-19 case. Quarantines weren’t being conducted properly. Masking and social distancing was poorly followed, if at all.

Madison-area employment attorney Colin Good, handling handfuls of COVID-era cases for employees in situations similar to these, says the issues highlighted in the complaints underscore one of the lasting lessons of the pandemic.

“Employers who are just using employees as labor and not as people are missing the point.”

Hundreds of complaints filed at height of pandemic

As COVID-19 cases spiked through the fall and early winter in late 2020, record requests  show employees and the public (and a few times OSHA itself, often in cases of deaths or media reports of outbreaks) filed complaints of COVID safety violations with OSHA by the hundreds in Wisconsin, tapering off in December and early 2021.

The lion's share of complaints falls in and around the state's two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison--nearly 100 of them in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, the first and third most populous counties in Wisconsin.

While a few industries like health care, food processing, and restaurants stood out as repeated areas of concern among the complaints, the data encompassed a broad scope of widely different industries.

A law firm in Milwaukee, where a complaint alleged employees were allowed to work through symptoms. A similar problem at a salon in Waukesha. A lack of proper masking inside a plating service company in Reedsburg. A case still open in Beloit at a local restaurant, opened two days after this News 3 Investigation into a COVID death where employees said they were required to work through symptoms.

The vast bulk of the complaints dealt with lacking or unenforced safety protocols, late into the pandemic after best practices had been established for months by the CDC.

"It's startling to me, how many industries experienced this," Good said after reviewing the data. "It affected every population of employee, it affected every type of industry."

Specifically in the area of employees required to keep working through sickness, Good emphasized legal protections that should bar that from happening--and encouraged employees to stay informed on their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act as well as other laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Inspections lag behind complaints amid gap in guidance

Just 12% (49 of 393) of COVID complaints resulted in an inspection, records show. A spokesperson for OSHA said the rest would have been handled through an informal process laid out in a 2019 manual, which mainly involves a letter to the employer--and often no contact with employees.

Throughout the pandemic, federal officials cited workplaces in Wisconsin just four times for violations of the "general duty" clause for employers to provide workers with a safe workplace--the mechanism used to enforce COVID safety protocols.

Limited inspections and minimal oversight from OSHA during the pandemic isn't unique to Wisconsin. A national investigation from the Wall Street Journal in March tracked hundreds of deaths with likely links to workplace outbreaks and uncovered a nationwide pattern of OSHA taking minimal steps and few inspections to handle COVID complaints.

The trend is due in part to the agency's strengths historically focused on chemical and physical hazards in workplaces, not the spread of infectious disease. But the agency also was more lenient across the board under the Trump administration, issuing fewer citations to businesses overall.

Under the Biden administration, COVID safety enforcement has ramped up with more inspections and citations, as well as finally implementing an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 that would enable officials to crack down on businesses. The mandatory standard, going into effect June 21, only applies to healthcare environments, while all other industries are subject to non-mandatory guidelines.

But advocates say that in order to prevent infectious disease outbreaks in workplaces in the future--under potentially unforeseen pandemics--OSHA must put permanent infectious disease guidance in place for employers, a standard wholly lacking currently.

"There needs to be a wholesale look at the changes that are needed to have a safe workplace," Bloomingdale said. "The fact that we had no infectious disease standard for companies to use really left workers without real protection. It's not acceptable."

The issue doesn't just impact workers, attorney Good noted. Unsafe workplaces for employees often mean dangerous environments for the public.

"It's not just worker concerns that they're supposed to be addressing, but also the public that are accessing their restaurants or their plants. So it's a really wide reaching problem," he explained. "We haven't seen any type of regulatory actions taken against companies that are clearly in violation of those OSHA statutes."