In summary

California is one of 22 states with a dedicated state agency charged with keeping workers safe and healthy. Here’s how you can report problems.

As the pandemic grinds on in California, patterns have emerged: The people who contract COVID-19 tend less wealthy and less white, and many get sick at work. From senior nursing facilities to meatpacking plants to motel rooms of farmworkers brought from other countries to Amazon warehouses, the coronavirus has appeared in many workplaces.

But California workers don’t have to go it alone. California is one of 22 states with a dedicated state agency charged with making and enforcing rules to keep workers safe and healthy.

During the pandemic, the short-staffed California Occupational Safety and Health Agency has raced to triage a mounting tsunami of about 7,300 workplace complaints and investigations into hundreds of illnesses and deaths related to the virus.

Here’s what you need to know about Cal/OSHA, what it’s doing to keep workers safe, and how you can report problems with your workplace’s COVID response.

What does Cal/OSHA do?

Cal/OSHA is the state agency that looks after worker safety in California, monitored by the federal agency by the same name. Cal/OSHA develops health and safety standards and then enforces those rules in over a million workplaces in the state.

The enforcement branch conducts 7,000 to 8,000 workplace inspections each year. Those are usually set off by complaints or worker injuries, illnesses or deaths, which employers are required to report. During their visits, inspectors interview employers and employees and observe the worksites. 

What has Cal/OSHA been doing during the pandemic? 

Cal/OSHA’s responsibilities have multiplied during the pandemic, while its resources have not.

On top of regular code enforcement, inspectors must investigate all reported COVID deaths and illnesses, and look into complaints from workers who believe their workplace isn’t keeping them safe from COVID-19. 

Complaints allege everything from companies forcing people to come to work with COVID-19 symptoms to rat infestations. An analysis of closed COVID-19 complaints shows that at least half allege issues with social distancing, masks or other personal protective equipment. 

The agency has taken an education-over-enforcement approach. It has published dozens of industry-specific guidelines, held webinars for workers and consulted with employers on their safety plans. As a result, a CalMatters analysis found the agency has conducted on-site inspections for 5% of COVID-19 complaints — a steep drop from the typical annual inspection rate, which Cal/OSHA pegged at 25% over the past four years.

Instead of inspections, most complaints led to what the agency calls letter investigations. These entail sending a letter to employers asking them to provide proof they have fixed the problem. 

Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker said the letters cast a wider net to protect workers.

“We thought that the use of these letter inspections, while not as effective as an in-person inspection, was going to allow us to triage and then reach the most workers that we possibly could,” Parker said.

But labor advocates fear the letters do little to prevent workplace outbreaks. Cal/OSHA can only issue citations if it has done an on-site inspection.

Why did it take so long for Cal/OSHA to start citing employers for unsafe COVID-19 practices? 

The agency cited the first employers in August — six months into the pandemic. Advocates say that’s too long. They note the agency has been underfunded and understaffed for years. About 21% of field inspector positions at Cal/OSHA were vacant in June.

“The truth is the agency is in the middle of a staffing crisis,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe. “It is deeply understaffed. And has been deprioritized by virtually everybody for a long time.”

Even so, Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi said the average duration of the citation process in 2020 has been 114 days, or just shy of four months — shorter than last year’s average of 139 days. Cal/OSHA is required by law to issue citations within six months of the date the violation occurred, though Newsom extended that by 60 days during the pandemic.

So far, Cal/OSHA has cited 37 employers for COVID-19 related violations.

Does California’s existing labor law provide enough COVID-19 protections? 

This one’s up for debate. The closest thing California has to a COVID-specific health and safety law is a set of rules to protect health workers from airborne diseases, but it only covers certain high-risk workplaces, such as medical facilities, homeless shelters and labs.

That’s why most of the non-health employers have been cited for violating their required injury and illness prevention programs, which are meant to prevent workers from getting hurt or sick.

In September, a coalition of labor advocates successfully lobbied Cal/OSHA to write a new COVID standard. The temporary emergency rule, expected to be finalized before the end of the year, would explicitly mandate what employers must do to protect workers from the coronavirus during the pandemic.

Industry lobbyists argued that employers were already confused by conflicting COVID-19 guidelines from local and state agencies. They said Cal/OSHA should focus more on making sure employers follow existing rules rather than creating new ones.

“Recalcitrant employers who are not following existing requirements are certainly not going to follow new ones,” said Elizabeth Treanor, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, at a hearing. “There is no evidence a new rule would improve compliance.”

Employers aggressively fight citations — and usually succeed in getting penalties reduced, if not entirely dismissed. Already, a third of the employers that Cal/OSHA has slapped for COVID hazards have appealed. 

How do I submit a complaint? Should I be worried about retaliation? 

The most effective route of reporting incidents is over the phone, according to Polizzi. They can also be submitted via email

Advocates say the sooner you can file a complaint, the better. The level of specificity — and gravity of the complaint — will determine how quickly the complaint is addressed. 

But most workers are scared to file complaints, advocates said, because they fear retaliation. 

To protect workers, Cal/OSHA doesn’t disclose the name of the complainant to the employer unless it has the worker’s explicit consent. The agency suggests that people provide their contact information when they submit complaints, to make it easier for the agency to follow up.

I submitted a complaint. What happens next?

Cal/OSHA will first decide whether the complaint is valid. The state may toss complaints that are too vague or if they don’t fall within the agency’s jurisdiction, Polizzi said.

Although Cal/OSHA has generally responded to COVID complaints via letter, in the most serious cases the agency will conduct in-person inspections that involve a conference with the employer, a request for documents, a physical inspection, interviews of managers and employees, and potentially a citation. 

If this is the route Cal/OSHA takes, the complainant might not hear back for months. Once the case is closed, Cal/OSHA will send them a letter describing the results of inspections, including whether citations were issued. Search to see whether Cal/OSHA has ever inspected and cited your employer on the Department of Labor’s Establishment Search page.

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jackie covered income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration from 2019 through 2021. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2021 for a Reuters...

Manuela is our former Housing Reporter whose stories focused on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that contribute to the housing crisis in California and its potential solutions....