Food industry led California in COVID-19 violations, but paid fewer fines, report says
California food industry employers racked up more than four times the number of coronavirus violations than all other industries combined – but paid less in overall penalties than comparable industries, according to a new report.
The report, “ California Food Production Employer Misconduct Leads to Elevated Risk of COVID-19 Hazards for Food Production Workers,” was released on Tuesday by the California Institute for Rural Studies.
The study analyzed 367 violations committed by food production employers based on data from the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety between April 2020 and August 2021.
Researchers found a high volume of serious violations – those that constitute likely risks of death or harm to workers – as well as a widespread failure of employers to enforce Cal/OSHA COVID-19 regulations such as face masks and physical distancing as well as employer failure to notify local and state agencies about COVID-19 outbreaks.
According to their analysis of Cal/OSHA data, California food production employers had four times as many citations for violating COVID-19 guidelines than employers in all other California industries combined.
Yet, they paid significantly lower penalties than other industries with a high volume of citations.
The average citation for food production employers was just over $20,000, a sum that is “not discouraging or preventing employers from violating labor and occupational health and safety laws,” Dvera Saxton, a researcher with CIRS and Cal State University Fresno professor, said during Wednesday’s news conference.
“The findings of the report about food production workers in California are consistent with what we know about food production workers around the country,” said Suzanne Adely, co-director of Food Chain Workers Alliance, during the news conference on Wednesday. “Food production workers face enormous challenges and exploitation in the workplace.”
The report also suggested several ways to reform the health and safety oversight bodies and expand protections for food industry workers.
“While it’s convenient and reassuring to believe that the pandemic is over,” Adely said, “we know that it will continue to impact the most vulnerable communities, and that includes food production workers.”
A high volume of ‘serious’ violations among food production employers
An analysis of Cal/OSHA inspections found that a majority of food production employer inspections, or 269 of the 326, resulted in serious violations. Serious violations include those that constitute likely risks of death or harm to workers. “However, this category contains caveats that make it easier for employers to contest complaints,” said the report. Only 57 employers out of 326 did not have any serious citations.
Nearly one-third, or 91 of the 326 employer inspections between April and December 2020, included regulatory citations. Regulatory citations include employer failure to obtain required permits, to post required health and safety information, maintain formal health and safety records, and to report work-related injuries, illnesses, and or deaths to Cal/OSHA – and in the case of COVID-19, to county public health authorities.
“It is concerning that more than one-fourth of Food Production Employer inspections revealed alleged withholding of important information needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among other workers onsite,” the report stated.
The “most common and egregious” employer violations of federal and Cal/OSHA COVID-19 rules, according to the report, were in two categories: failure to enforce Cal/OSHA COVID-19 regulations and failure to notify local and state agencies about outbreaks and when COVID-19 related injury, illness, or fatality of an employee had occurred.
Despite having more violations overall, food production employers paid lower fines for their violations compared with other highly cited industries, the report showed.
The average penalty per food production employer was $22,473 as of August 2021. Meanwhile, the average penalty for public agencies, a sector that includes federal and state prisons, was over $40,000, and the average penalty for assisted living, elder, and child care facilities was $30,000.
“The fines do not necessarily align with the severity of the violations,” Saxton said. Employers can negotiate a settlement with Cal/OSHA or formally appeal and contest findings using “very powerful legal teams” through the court process, said Saxton, which often results in cheaper final penalties.
The discrepancy between initial and final penalties is a “cause for concern,” according to the report. Researchers found that employers secured a 42% reduction of the total initial penalty.