COVID-19 workplace complaints pile up in South Bay but lack follow-up
Downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.

Workers showed up to work sick with COVID-19 symptoms. Management hid positive test results from employees. Supervisors banned phones to prevent documenting unsafe facilities.

These are some of the allegations many South Bay workers have made since Santa Clara County began to ease shelter-in-place restrictions to allow some businesses to resume, according to documents obtained by San José Spotlight.

The complaints shed light on the working conditions some employees said they’re facing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Created to handle workplace issues across Santa Clara County, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement is now an official channel to report COVID-19 workplace violations. Its hotline is different from the District Attorney’s tip line, which has received thousands of tips about backyard parties, people playing soccer and garage haircuts.

All the OLSE claims are heavily redacted, removing identifying information about complainants and their employers. But the consensus is clear: Workers in Silicon Valley are scared, concerned of exposure and feared retaliation as employers rushed them back to work.

A total of 27 complaints were made in May and June, just as businesses started reopening, ranging from concerns that workers were being forced back to offices to employers hiding COVID-19 test results from their employees.

The complaints from July were not yet available.

Resolutions to the complaints are slow to reach, according to the documents. As of mid-July, only three of the 27 complaints made in May and June had been marked as resolved. Half remained pending — meaning the county hasn’t reached the businesses in question – and the rest were referred to other offices.

At a Milpitas factory, employees suffering from COVID-19 were being forced to work, a complaint from June 16 says. Workers were given one disposable mask per week and no gloves, the claim says, and supervisors didn’t wear masks, gloves or eye protection while instructing workers 1 or 2 feet away. Phones were banned to prevent documentation of the working conditions, the complaint says.

“Employees (who) complain are told the employer will not do anything about it,” the complaint says. “And if the employee is dissatisfied, the employee can find work elsewhere.”

A Los Altos business prohibited workers from requiring face coverings inside, and put up signs saying masks were optional in store, a June 24 complaint says. The county required masks in stores as of May 22.

A business in San Jose was reported for disregarding social distancing protocols, not requiring masks and having poor hygiene standards. Workers were not required to wash their hands regularly, and the bathroom lacked hand soap “for two or three days” multiple times, a complaint from June 14 says.

Two of those complaints were referred to the Department of Environment Health and the Public Health Department’s investigation team. The latter complaint, filed on June 14, remained pending as of mid-July.

In a recurring theme, employees claimed their companies were aggressively demanding workers return to work, even though they had worked from home without issue for months prior. In one case, a San Jose company reportedly retaliated against its employees for requesting accommodation based on doctor’s notes.

OLSE examines each complaint before reaching out to a business or conducting an “online site visit,” according to a statement. The investigations are conducted by OLSE staff, the Emergency Operations Center, the District Attorney’s Office, County Counsel, Department of Environmental Health and Department of Planning and Development.

“Our first inclination is always approach, whenever possible, the complaint or violation as an opportunity for education and clarity around the health order,” the statement said. OLSE escalates cases of repeat offenders and willful defiance to law enforcement or County Counsel’s office.

The lack of enforcement has emboldened some employers.

Defying the health orders, WESTCA Gym in downtown San Jose continues to take customers through appointments. Photo by Luke Johnson.

In downtown San Jose, it appears WESTCA Gym has disregarded the latest shutdown order since mid-July.

The business, after being closed four months, reopened July 13 when Santa Clara County allowed gyms, hair and nail salons and places of worship to reopen. But thousands of businesses shut their doors again when the county landed on the state’s hospitalization watchlist the same week. The gym remained open.

San José Spotlight captured video of WESTCA continuing to take clients, through appointments, after the new order took effect July 15. The videos show customers filtering in and out of the downtown gym July 20, while people inside were lifting weights with masks on.

WESTCA’s website says it uses appointments to limit the number of people inside and allow employees time to sanitize the space in between sessions.

Gym co-owners Tory Woodward and Meaghan Karabatsos did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The gym remained open as of Aug. 7.

Defying health orders, WESTCA Gym in downtown San Jose continues to take customers through appointments. Photo by Luke Johnson.

County public health officials did not answer questions about the gym or other potential scofflaw businesses.

“Enforcement of the health order falls to the local jurisdictions,” a Santa Clara County spokesperson said. “If someone wants to report a business operating outside the order, they can contact the District Attorney’s Office, who can then alert the local jurisdiction.”

Neighboring counties, including San Mateo, Marin and Contra Costa, have begun issuing citations and fines for health order violations –– a less punitive approach than a misdemeanor charge or jail time.

Meanwhile, a San Jose resident complained June 29 that reports made to county officials had “not been fruitful.” The complainant urged Santa Clara Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody to strengthen health orders.

“Simply encouraging compliance is clearly not working,” the complainant wrote.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. Contact Luke Johnson at [email protected] and follow @Scoop_Johnson on Twitter.

UPDATE: The top photo for this article was added and the photo of WESTCA Gym was moved. WESTCA Gym reopened in July and stayed open despite the current shelter-in-place orders. It did not engage in the conduct attributed to other, unnamed businesses discussed in the first part of the article.

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