After months of complaints and warnings about unsanitary conditions for employees at a San Francisco Department of Public Works facility on Cesar Chavez Street, nine city workers there have tested positive for Covid-19 — with one of them requiring hospitalization.
As a result, Laborers International Union 261, which represents the Public Works employees, filed a complaint on Jan. 29 with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA), alleging that the workers lack access to clean restrooms and adequate handwashing stations. That, they argue, is a violation of state standards and a hazard as the pandemic rages on.
The complaint also alleges that the Department of Public Works failed to properly notify workers of the outbreak and did not provide testing at the facility.
“We need action now to protect workers and the public from COVID-19,” Theresa Foglio-Ramirez, a union representative, said in a statement. “San Francisco talks a good game about protection and prevention, but they treat their own workers as if we are expendable.”
Indeed, these Public Works employees and their union had been warning the city since March that department workers, tasked with dismantling homeless encampments, had no place to wash their hands while out in the field.
Moreover, the employees lacked clean places to use the restroom; Public Works policy instead dictated that employees use the restrooms of nearby businesses while doing work in the field. When the lockdown orders came in March, those bathrooms were in short supply.
Conditions at the 2323 Cesar Chavez Maintenance Yard, where there are available bathrooms and sinks, are no better, Mission Local reported last March. Workers there described “coyote incursions, infestations of raccoons, possums, and skunks — and mounds of excrement from all of the above.”
Some buildings and trailers had no hot water; mold and grunge were common; and workers said there were only two janitors for the vast complex. Furthermore, workers told Mission Local that they lacked Covid-19 training, adequate personal protective equipment, and running water and soap while on the job.
These conditions prompted an earlier complaint by the union to OSHA in July. Citing Mission Local’s reporting, that complaint charged: “Despite knowing in detail about the hazard for over four months, and the urgency of the situation, the City has not made an effort to correct the ongoing violations.”
“The safety of our employees, all considered essential workers, remains a top concern and priority,” said Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon in an email. “Public Works takes the threat of COVID-19 transmission extremely seriously and, guided by public health authorities, has been enacting and regularly updating safety measures since the start of the global pandemic.”
Although she did not address the specific allegations in the union’s Cal OSHA complaint — or whether the department will address the union’s call for bathrooms and washing stations — she did list off the department’s current Covid-19 measures.
Public Works performs daily health screening and temperature checks for operations employees and requires masking and daily health screenings for all employees, Gordon said. Moreover, procedures are in place to promote physical distancing, such as staggered shift times and dispatching of work crews outdoors. Common areas at the Cesar Chavez facility are regularly cleaned and disinfected, she said.
Every case is investigated and traced, Gordon said, and those who have tested positive are removed from the work and required to quarantine.
But the union alleges the problem does not stop with the city. Cal/OSHA, it charges, also has not done its part to enforce its own standards. This January’s outbreak and the months of poor conditions raise questions about whether Cal OSHA’s scrolls of Covid-19 guidance can be effective without enforcement.
In the complaint filed on Jan. 29, the union party attributed the outbreak to “Cal/OSHA’s inability to enforce the law and require the City’s compliance.”
It’s unclear how the agency acted on the July complaint, how it will respond to the complaint filed last week — or, generally, if the agency enforces its Covid-19 standards at all.
“Cal/OSHA can neither confirm or deny whether it has received a complaint from a specific individual or entity, unless specifically authorized by the complainant,” was all its communications department offered in response to questions regarding complaints and enforcement.