California issued millions in COVID fines. Employers have paid almost none of them
Six months into the pandemic, California's workplace safety agency tried to send an ominous message about COVID-19 safety to business owners: "We're watching."
By April 2021, inspectors with California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal-OSHA, had ordered roughly $4.6 million in fines for wrongdoing related to the COVID-19 in some 200 workplaces.
But behind the scenes at the state's workplace safety agency, California employers and their lawyers have filed an onslaught of appeals, delayed paying their fines and sought deals to pay next to nothing, a Sacramento Bee review of Cal-OSHA fines and payment data found.
Violations generally fell into three categories: failing to maintain proper safety and training plans, lacking protective equipment such as masks or plexiglass barriers, and blowing past deadlines to inform regulators of coronavirus deaths — if they did so at all.
"San Quentin prison is fined $421,880 over deadly COVID-19 conditions," one news headline from February read. "Local nursing home fined nearly $100,000 for coronavirus related workplace violations," said a television news report. "Foster Farms fined $174,275 after deadly COVID-19 outbreak in Merced County," declared one more.
More than a year since inspectors noted some of those violations, employers have paid only about 3% of the total charges, according to the financial data, which the state compiled in response to a Public Records Act request from The Bee.
The reason? Among all of the employers fined more than $10,000, four out of five of them have pushed back against their citations.
That effectively hit the pause button on any payment.
Worker advocates say bad actors faced no true consequences from the state of California for killing people or making them sick. Some have sued the employers. The lack of enforcement also allowed alleged wrongdoing to continue long after a violation was first reported, they say
"There's essentially just a rejection of responsibility that's deeper than we knew, and it's very problematic for California workers," said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, an employee-rights advocacy group.
By comparison, from 2015 to 2019 only about 8% of employers under federal OSHA's jurisdiction contested their citations, according to data the agency provided to The Bee. That does not include appeals from state-run workplace safety groups, like Cal-OSHA.
Analyses of federal OSHA data from Bloomberg News and Reuters found a growing number of employers — around half — were challenging their fines during the pandemic. That number appears to be higher in California, though delays in reporting make it difficult to compare the country's pandemic appeals to those under Cal-OSHA.
In California, some employers have claimed that employees did not contract COVID-19 on the job. Others contend that they couldn't provide masks or training because of limited supplies and California's fast-changing rules.
But critics say the soaring number of appeals amounts to employers shirking accountability.
The Bee's analysis buttresses farmworkers' and food-packing employees' contention that Cal-OSHA hasn't done enough to protect workers, said Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a Davis nonprofit that advocates for farmworkers.
She said the agency is known for imposing "very small, slap-on-the-wrist fines that don't change behavior" and simply doesn't have the means to improve workplace safety.
California's median COVID-19 fine amount was about $11,250 and went to a large grocery store chain as well as farm labor companies. The smallest was $300 to a senior living facility.
"Cal-OSHA has been understaffed, under-funded," she said. It's questionable whether "the agency has the capacity, the political will to enforce the law."
Earlier this year, The Bee reported how the state was failing to monitor where employees were getting sick while nursing home operators avoided scrutiny by overlooking requirements to report to state watchdogs when employees died of COVID-19.
Concerns about Cal-OSHA's functioning have only intensified. A state committee said health and safety enforcement in recent years has been "minimal to non-existent."
Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for a massive investment in staffing at the department, but hiring those positions will take months and has proved challenging in recent years, when staffing shortages have only intensified.
As of last week, there were about 100 jobs for the Department of Industrial Relations posted on the state's hiring website — including several for the legal unit that handles appeals.