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As Workers Faced Covid Risks, OSHA Fell Short of Its Mission

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not thoroughly investigate worker conditions at an American Airlines subsidiary during the pandemic, despite multiple employee complaints and a Covid-19 outbreak that led to one death. Photo Illustration: Adele Morgan

Video Transcript

KELLY KOLBERG: Yeah.

I remember I was sitting right outside my house when my buddy told me that a coworker, Glenmar, had passed away and instant disbelief and sadness. Now there's this beautiful human being who's not on the earth anymore. And then the anger came in because he was super concerned about COVID, yet, you know, there was nothing done for him and his concerns.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Kelly Kolberg worked at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport as a baggage handler for Envoy Air, a regional carrier owned by American Airlines. Kolberg and other Envoy fleet crew members were considered essential workers, as they showed up to keep operations running during the early days of the pandemic.

KELLY KOLBERG: We expected certain things to be done, just basics like you and I cleaning our own house, and that wasn't done. You didn't have gloves. You didn't have masks. You had nothing. There was no social distancing.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Kolberg's coworker, Glenmar Gabriel, was one of about 30 Envoy workers infected with coronavirus early on in the pandemic. Envoy says that at the beginning of the pandemic, it put a plan in place to increase cleaning and sanitation that was in line with CDC recommendations. But even after Gabriel died, the federal agency dedicated to protecting workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA, did not thoroughly investigate multiple complaints against Envoy.

- The coronavirus pandemic upending the nation's meat industry. Several processing plants have shuttered after COVID-19 spread throughout their workforce.

- There's also an increasing focus on protecting essential employees, including grocery store workers. At least 30 have died of the coronavirus since the outbreak started.

- There are more clusters of coronavirus cases among construction workers than any other industry in Austin. Workers say they are scared for their health and safety.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Worker health and safety is at the core of OSHA's mission. But according to a "Wall Street Journal" investigation, as complaints surged 72% during the pandemic from the previous year, the agency was caught overwhelmed and unprepared. It's difficult to pinpoint where infections happened and know for sure the role workplaces played in the spread of the virus. But the "Wall Street Journal" found that OSHA left workers vulnerable to outbreaks on the job.

OSHA has opened formal investigations into only 6% of all coronavirus-related workplace complaints. That compares with 22% of non-coronavirus complaints since the pandemic began and 32% of all complaints in the prior year. A Department of Labor spokesperson says that OSHA investigates all safety and health violation allegations within its jurisdiction. The spokesperson says that investigations can be conducted by phone or other modes of communication.

DAVID MICHAELS: This is the crisis that OSHA was invented for, but OSHA hasn't stepped up to the plate.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Created in 1970, OSHA and its state equivalents are tasked with ensuring safe conditions in workplaces.

DAVID MICHAELS: OSHA is supposed to issue standards that tell employers exactly what to do to protect workers. OSHA can issue an emergency temporary standard that says we have a new and very serious hazard. We need protection immediately. In the beginning of OSHA's history, asbestos was a very common hazard in workplaces.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: In 1983, OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard which aimed to further limit workers' exposure to asbestos.

DAVID MICHAELS: OSHA doesn't have any standards or regulations that are specific to coronavirus.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: In a May congressional hearing, OSHA's then top administrator argued that the agency had taken early and adequate steps to protect workers during the pandemic.

LOREN SWEATT: OSHA had started as early as January of this year putting information on our website through a Safety and Health Topics page to inform individuals about the pandemic. We outlined what standards we thought employers should be aware of, that they should be in compliance with. And we have subsequently provided general industry guidance, along with almost 20 actual individual industry guidance documents to help employers respond to this pandemic.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: That guidance was in accordance with CDC guidelines, but experts like Michaels say it wasn't enough.

DAVID MICHAELS: Employers can see OSHA recommendations saying, look, it's important to make sure workers are wearing face coverings. It's important that workers are 6 feet apart, and there's good ventilation. But unless OSHA requires that of every employer, some employers are not going to do it. And that puts other employers who want to do the right thing at a financial disadvantage. They've got to compete with these employers who are not going to protect their workers.

MIKE PENCE: As I stand before you today, we have more than 100 coronavirus cases in the United States. Clean and disinfect frequently. Wash your hands with either a disinfectant or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

KELLY KOLBERG: As COVID was progressing into March and April, the only things that we were informed about through emails were your prototypical CDC standard letters that they were sending out. You'll have a supervisor come in, and they'll give their morning kind of speech. Hey, be safe.

And it did include, you know, hey, wash your hands. The problem with that was what they were advising we weren't even able to do, because we didn't have the resources. I'm trying to wash my hands, and there's no soap.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Kolberg says in mid-March, Envoy break rooms and crew areas were dirty. Some workers brought their own soap because dispensers were often empty.

KELLY KOLBERG: As you could see, there's no product in that soap dispenser. And there's the alternate.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Envoy says that concerns raised by employees about soap and hand sanitizer were related to the locations that were not part of the company's lease spaces at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Envoy says that when concerns were raised, it addressed the issues with the party responsible. The company says that at the time employees expressed concerns about masks and gloves in March, the CDC recommended against their use.

On March 16, an Envoy employee filed a workplace safety complaint with OSHA. It alleged Envoy didn't have an effective plan to address the specific exposure risks associated with the coronavirus. On March 23, OSHA notified Envoy of the complaint and requested the company investigate the alleged conditions. OSHA asked Envoy to reply by March 30 with details about any corrective actions.

Envoy responded on March 31, writing that the company continues to communicate CDC guidance, that rooms are frequently clean, and that soap and hand wipes are supplied for employee use. The company also said flights continue to be spread throughout the terminal, preventing larger groups from being in one ready room. On April 5, Glenmar Gabriel died.

KELLY KOLBERG: And the minute I heard he passed away, nothing else mattered anymore. It was about preventing the potentiality of that happening to anyone else.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: The day after Gabriel's death, a second complaint was filed to OSHA by an Envoy employee. This complaint again alleged Envoy did not have an effective plan to address COVID-specific exposure risks and that it was not following CDC guidance to protect workers. Again, OSHA asked the company to immediately investigate the alleged conditions. OSHA told Envoy to respond by April 15. It's unclear if Envoy responded or if OSHA investigated further based on documents obtained by the "Journal."

KELLY KOLBERG: In every one of our break rooms, the seating is-- consists of picnic tables, where you'd have, you know, six individuals at a picnic table.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Kolberg decided to go to the local media.

KELLY KOLBERG: I documented about as much as I could. I was reaching out to anyone who wanted to hear.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: On April 15, the NBC affiliate in Dallas aired a story about the coronavirus outbreak among American Airlines and Envoy workers.

- We have learned that 30 DFW ramp workers at American Airlines and American's regional carrier Envoy have tested positive for coronavirus. And 26 more at Envoy are still waiting on test results, according to union officials.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Kolberg says he did see improvements in cleanliness and social distancing right after the news story ran.

KELLY KOLBERG: It was so clean. They had a table. They had PPE, gloves, masks, everything. They had a CDC table for information on where to get tested, everything. They had social distancing set up, different break rooms open with tables and chairs spread out. You had what you should have. Now I am not sure how long all that stayed, but it definitely got fixed immediately.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: A few days later, the company fired Kolberg.

KELLY KOLBERG: They brought me in the office and fired me for what they claim to be was a violation of attendance.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: Envoy disputes employees' claims that cleaning and COVID protocols were enhanced immediately following the NBC affiliate story. The company says those measures were in place prior to the April news broadcast. The company says it doesn't want to comment on employee disciplinary matters, but disputes Kolberg's description of what happened.

On July 9, a third complaint against Envoy was filed with OSHA. It alleged employees were not informed about potential exposures and reiterated accusations raised by previous complaints. Again, OSHA asked Envoy to remedy the situation with no mention of prior complaints about Envoy. On July 24, Envoy responded, and it said it had addressed the matters raised in the complaint. OSHA did not further investigate.

DAVID MICHAELS: Normally, OSHA would be tracking all complaints. They certainly should get out after the second or the third to really see what's going on, because, clearly, there's concern on the part of workers. What happens after a while, of course, is OSHA doesn't respond at all, workers stop complaining, and that's even worse.

ALEXANDER HOTZ: By November, 2020, the Transportation Workers Union, which represents Envoy Airlines' fleet and maintenance crews, had tallied nearly 50 coronavirus cases and one death among its Dallas Fort Worth members. In total, the "Journal" identified over a thousand COVID deaths at companies throughout the US that OSHA did not investigate, even though workers were likely exposed to the virus on the job. These include deaths employers didn't report to OSHA.

The "Journal" identified 180 deaths that occurred after employees sent complaints to OSHA. These complaints were never investigated by federal or state workplace safety authorities beyond what was often a brief correspondence with the companies. No one suggests that different actions could have prevented the deaths identified by the "Journal."

OSHA says that, in total, it investigated and subsequently closed six complaints against Envoy Air regarding locations in and nearby Dallas Fort Worth airport. OSHA says it never received a fatality report related to COVID-19 from Envoy. Only after the "Journal" contacted OSHA about Glenmar Gabriel's death did the agency investigate. According to a Department of Labor spokesperson, OSHA's investigation into the fatality is ongoing.

DAVID MICHAELS: I know OSHA's filled with dedicated safety and health professionals, but the leadership of OSHA has essentially said, we're not going to do anything special. We're not going to issue a standard that OSHA can then apply, that inspectors can go into a workplace and say, look, you're not following our regulation and, therefore, will issue a citation. All those dedicated people really are handcuffed.

KELLY KOLBERG: I expected accountability to be at a different level. It is a new standard. And so yeah, you expect that if this person doesn't do it, well, you know, this entity which keeps them in check will do something. And if they don't, well, someone will. But nobody, nobody, at any level does anything. The only people would be the people down on the ground. They're the only ones that are looking out for themselves.

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