Shoppers exit the King Soopers in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on Nov. 24, 2020. The store was the site of a previous COVID-19 outbreak. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Sandra Chavez, a grocery worker, had to switch to the night shift to reduce her risk of contracting COVID-19. Bob Dinegar, a bus operator, is worried about increased crowding on public transit as layoffs and service cuts loom. Rachel Wolter, a hairstylist, believes she lost her job in retaliation for her safety complaints.
The three were among the workers who joined officials from the Colorado AFL-CIO on Wednesday for a press conference on workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic, urging state and local officials to do a better job of enforcing public health measures.
“These issues and concerns are real for us,” said Chavez, a Safeway employee. “A lot of us employees can’t afford to take off work. You’ve got kids at home. It’s just so stressful. So many of my coworkers are stressed out.”
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A service set up by the Colorado AFL-CIO for workers to report unsafe workplaces has received more than 1,000 complaints since launching in May, said executive director Dennis Dougherty.
The complaints are shared with state officials, but the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has generally left it up to local health agencies to decide when and how to enforce COVID-19 restrictions. Labor advocates say this patchwork of regulation and enforcement is putting front-line workers at risk, especially in conservative areas like Weld County, where officials have vocally opposed restrictions on businesses.
“Enforcement at the local level has been inconsistent, and in some cases even nonexistent,” Dougherty said. “We cannot solely rely on the sense of personal responsibility of employers.”
Across the state, health officials are currently tracking hundreds of COVID-19 outbreaks at restaurants, retailers, warehouses, construction sites and other workplace types, and hundreds of others have been resolved this year, according to CDPHE data. But advocates want to see a more proactive process to allow workers to submit complaints and ensure timely investigation and enforcement, including at the state level.
“If the local public health agencies cannot or will not act, state agencies should step in to protect these workers,” Dougherty said. “There needs to be an intake mechanism, like a hotline and an online form, developed and administered by the state, which would be solely dedicated for workers to identify unsafe workplaces.”
Colorado and many other states have largely been left to address COVID-19 workplace safety concerns on their own, because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has “completely failed” to do so at the federal level, said Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director for the National Employment Law Project.
“We’ve known from the beginning … that workplace exposures are a significant driver of this pandemic,” Berkowitz said. “If you’re going to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through the public, you need to mitigate the spread at work. But OSHA, under our president, has refused to issue any requirements that employers have to implement to protect workers.”
Over 60% of the complaints received by the Colorado AFL-CIO relate to improper handling of employees who tested positive for COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms — part of a “work-while-sick” culture in many retail and service-sector workplaces, Chavez said.
“It’s so important when we come back home, that we feel safe,” she said. “I haven’t seen my mother in three months, because I work in a retail environment. I drop off groceries, I drop off meals, that’s really all I do.”
Other widespread concerns from front-line workers include a lack of enforcement of Colorado’s mask mandate, insufficiently ventilated spaces, lack of breaks to wash hands and more.
Dinegar, a bus operator for Denver’s Regional Transportation District, faulted public officials for relying too much on personal responsibility from passengers to follow public health guidelines. As RTD prepares to lay off hundreds of drivers amid continued service cuts, he’s worried about the risks that passengers and operators will face in more crowded buses and trains.
“Management is free to work from their homes, pulling down six-figure salaries, while operators make twenty bucks an hour, wondering if they’ll bring home the virus,” Dinegar said. “These are life and death decisions being made here.”
“Colorado needs a mechanism to enforce, not just inform,” he added.
Even in the best of times, service workers said, their workplaces can be high-stress environments. But with the virus more prevalent in Colorado than ever before, they know that every shift now puts them at risk of contracting the virus, suffering serious health complications or passing it on to a loved one.
Chavez, who is herself in a high-risk category as a cancer survivor and diabetic, said that she personally knew one of the grocery workers at a Denver King Soopers who died after contracting COVID-19 earlier this year. CDPHE data shows that in recent weeks, Colorado’s daily COVID-19 death counts have exceeded their previous April peak, with an average of more than 35 people dying every day.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Chavez. said. “They’re going through this alone. They’re dying alone.”
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