Coronavirus has exploded in essential workplaces across California, but many counties won’t report workplace outbreaks to the public, raising questions about who exactly ends up protected.
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Napa County doesn’t collect data about coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces.
Sonoma County does, but won’t identify them because it would compromise the county’s working relationship with employers.
Alameda County won’t share outbreak locations to protect privacy and to guard against what one health official called undue stigma.
From meat-packing plants to construction sites to lettuce fields, coronavirus has exploded in essential workplaces across California. But since the state lacks a uniform policy for reporting workplace outbreaks, the job of notifying the public, particularly workers, has fallen to county public health departments. That results in statewide inconsistencies, raising questions about who exactly — employer or employee — ends up protected. While some officials err on the side of transparency, others refuse to disclose outbreaks in order to preserve cooperation from employers who aren’t legally obligated to report outbreaks.
California essential workers are left to wonder whether any of their colleagues have been sickened with the potentially deadly virus, and if so, how many? Information about the outbreaks arrives sporadically to reporters, often the result of tips from scared workers.
Scared of catching virus at work
Maria, an employee at a cold storage unit in North Kern County, said she believes at least 13 people, or over a quarter of her colleagues, have caught the virus. Typically, counties define an outbreak as three or more COVID-positive people who were in contact in one place.
The company informed workers after one case and tested all employees, but has since gone silent.
“It’s scary,” she said. “We just hear it from other people, we don’t hear it from our boss or supervisors. It’s rumors and rumors and all of a sudden we don’t see that person anymore.”
She is especially scared of catching the virus and bringing it home to her two kids, ages 8 and 14. She used her middle name and declined to name her employer, though, because she feared retaliation. Kern County did not respond to questions about whether they track or report outbreaks.
“I’m a single mom,” Maria said. “I need to feed my kids.”
Investigation: COVID rips through motel rooms of guest workers who pick nation’s produce
Guest worker outbreaks in California have sickened hundreds and killed at least one domestic worker, according to an investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian. Meanwhile, harvesting companies haven’t always notified local public health departments.
In some cases, counties may have good reasons for wanting to keep outbreaks quiet. Local health departments rely on employers voluntarily alerting them to outbreaks, and employers might not do so if they fear it will show up in a newspaper. And county public health agencies say limited funding has hampered their coronavirus responses, though none cited that as a reason for not publicizing workplace outbreaks.
In contrast, the Oregon Health Authority began publishing all workplace outbreaks online in May, after facing criticism for not alerting the public to an outbreak at a fruit company. Director Patrick Allen said, “OHA believes a consistent, transparent statewide approach to reporting COVID-19 cases in workplaces will give Oregonians more information to help people avoid the risks of COVID-19 infections.”
Proposals to improve transparency
Pending legislation in California could help. Authored by Democrat Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes of San Bernardino, the bill would require that employers notify their workers of all potential exposures from confirmed cases at the worksite, and notify the county health department as soon as there are three cases — or face a $10,000 penalty. It would go into effect Jan. 1 if passed and signed by the governor, but faces opposition from dozens of lobbies representing agricultural, hospitality, and construction employers, among others.
A provision that would have required the state to identify workplace outbreaks online was watered down during negotiations this week, to protect worker privacy.
The current lack of transparency may deepen the pandemic’s racial disparities. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that most COVID-19 outbreaks in Utah between March 6 and June 5 happened at workplaces. Hispanic and other nonwhite workers accounted for 73% of those cases despite comprising just a quarter of the workforce.
To Tania Pacheco-Werner, a sociologist at Cal State Fresno, counties’ silence on workplace outbreaks is “one of the reasons why this got so out of control” and a “missed opportunity.”
“County health officers will say ‘avoid parties.’ But they’re not giving us the data of where they’re getting infected,” said Pacheco-Werner. “So people don’t have any way to conceptualize what the actual impact of going to grandma’s house is.”
Department of Industrial Relations Director Katie Hagen did not immediately respond to questions about whether California should have a uniform policy that employers must notify health authorities and employees of workplace outbreaks, or a policy that all workplace outbreaks be reported regularly to the public. California Department of Public Health Acting Director Sandra Shewry declined to comment.
Asked what the state-wide standard should be for reporting outbreaks, Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed to Gómez Reyes bill: “We’re working with legislative leaders to tackle just that.”
Wide variation in county transparency
Last week, CalMatters and the Salinas Californian published a monthlong investigation uncovering reports of six outbreaks, sickening more than 350 people, at seven companies across the state that employ agricultural guest workers from other countries.
Reporting revealed alarming variations in whether a sample of 16 California counties report, or even track, workplace outbreaks.
On one end of the spectrum, Los Angeles County reports every known workplace outbreak online.
On the other end sits Napa County, which does not collect data on workplace outbreaks, according to Deputy County Executive Officer Molly Ratigan.
Neighboring Sonoma County has responded to multiple workplace outbreaks but won’t let the public know about them, said Department of Health Services spokesperson Rohish Lal, because it “would be disruptive to cooperation with employers and employees at these worksites.”
Both Napa and Sonoma counties have seen outbreaks among “dozens” of vineyard workers, according to the state’s COVID-19 county watch list.
Monterey County is also “not giving specific information about employers,” said Department of Health spokesperson Karen Smith.
Other counties sat somewhere in the middle.
Santa Barbara, Ventura, Solano, Imperial, Riverside and Tulare counties will confirm whether they’re aware of workplace outbreaks, and, in some cases, the numbers of employees sickened, when presented with company names.
Contra Costa currently monitors seven workplace outbreaks, but will only identify them “if we felt there was a public safety need to do so.” San Luis Obispo would do so if “there is substantial public health benefit from sharing that, or there is a significant threat posed to the public by that business.” San Francisco’s criterion: if close contacts could not be identified by name during contact tracing.
Santa Clara officials declined to say whether the county made any information public.
Employer confidentiality over public notice
Several counties, like Alameda, cited privacy concerns. Fresno will release information about outbreaks “only if larger total staff and an outbreak situation occurred” to “meet our data censoring guidelines.” Pushed for more detail, spokesperson Simranjit Dhillon clarified that the county doesn’t have a specific “employer case count threshold number for reporting facilities.”
The county did confirm to reporters positive cases at Wawona Packing in mid-August, but would not confirm any information to The Fresno Bee about an outbreak reportedly affecting over 100 workers at Harris Ranch Beef Company in late-July.
“There’s a lot of confidentiality issues that go with workplace outbreaks of any kind,” said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology & biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco, who previously served as California’s State Health Officer and State Epidemiologist.
It makes sense for counties to decide how much information they want to share with the public, Rutherford said.
Asked if he thought it was dangerous for the public not to know where workplace outbreaks are happening, Rutherford compared the virus to a sexually transmitted disease: “If you have syphilis, would it be dangerous for the public not to know you have syphilis?”
Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Salinas, disagreed. He said that counties’ wanting to maintain cooperation with employers or protect their privacy are “not valid reasons” for concealing outbreaks from the public.
“We’re all in this together,” Rivas said.
Counties struggle to detect outbreaks
The state simply advises employers to notify their local health agency of suspected outbreaks.
Some counties, like Santa Barbara and Alameda, require employers to notify the county of cases among their staff, but it’s unclear whether that’s enforced. A spokesperson said San Francisco opts for an “educational approach” when a business does not report and Los Angeles has been slow to implement fines against employers who fail to report outbreaks.
Employers are required to notify Cal/OSHA, the state agency that regulates workplace conditions, about any work-related COVID-19 cases that result in severe illness, hospitalization or death. However, Cal/OSHA does not post information about its investigations online, though the agency was willing to confirm whether it had investigated or was actively investigating COVID deaths associated with employers on a list that reporters provided.
That’s one reason why Rivas penned a bill, part of a legislative package aimed at protecting farmworkers, that would require Cal/OSHA to routinely publicize findings from investigations into agricultural employers’ COVID responses.
“If our goal is to keep California moving forward and minimize the negative impact of COVID-19, then this type of reporting is absolutely necessary,” Rivas said.
If companies don’t report outbreaks to health officials, counties must detect them through contact tracing. But employees sickened at work often fear they’ll face stigma or won’t be called back to work if they name their companies, official said, and contract tracers won’t force them to.
“Employees sometimes are pretty reticent about identifying their employer,” said Tom Fuller, an environmental health specialist for Fresno County Department of Public Health. “They say they drive to the fields alone, they work alone. What can I do? I can’t call him a liar. And for all I know, he’s not.”
In other cases, it’s about a lack of data or technology.
Barbara Cole, the director of disease control for Riverside County, answered the phone one evening in late July after putting out what she said felt like an endless string of fires. She said she simply didn’t, and likely wouldn’t, have time to look through her workplace surveillance folders — “It’s paper, I will admit,” Cole said — to see if any of them matched up with a list of addresses that reporters provided.
“I have to prioritize,” Cole said, “Not that what you have isn’t important. It is.”
This story has been updated to include response from the state public health department.
Kate Cimini contributed reporting. This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.