Nine months into the pandemic, the public remains in the dark about most workplace outbreaks. Fresno County public health officials blame incomplete data and staffing shortages. One lawmaker may reintroduce legislation to make workplace outbreak data public statewide.
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Nine months into the pandemic, the Fresno County Department of Public Health continues to collect data on COVID-19 cases by workplace. The public, however, remains in the dark about most workplace outbreaks.
When any Fresno resident fills out the online form to take a coronavirus test or speaks to a contact tracer, public health officials collect workplace data like occupation and employer, officials told The Fresno Bee.
But the health department doesn’t make that information public because they say it is rife with errors, and they lack the staffing capacity to tell the story behind the numbers.
Sharing data on coronavirus outbreaks at work instead falls on employers, whom the state and county encourage to keep employees informed. But according to interviews with dozens of workers across several industries over the past six months, many businesses fail to do that, and there has been no mechanism for accountability to date.
Among the least transparent are employers of low-wage, immigrant workers, advocates told The Bee, leaving Fresno’s most vulnerable workers ill-equipped to make decisions critical to their health and wellbeing.
Many of these low-wage workers don’t have the choice to stay home or change jobs, but knowing of an outbreak could help them take extra precautions to keep themselves and their families safe, advocates said.
“If you have an employer not willing to protect you, by having information, you and those that work around you get a better sense of how crucial it is to take action among yourselves,” said Deep Singh, local community advocate and executive director of the Jakara Movement.
That information remains elusive.
Two or three times a week, workers at the Fresno Amazon warehouse in recent months have received a nearly identical message in their work app inbox, according to dozens of screenshots Amazon employees have shared with The Bee.
“We were recently notified that individuals who work at FAT1 has (sic) received a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis,” the message says. FAT1 is the Amazon Fulfillment Center in southeast Fresno.
It goes on to state when the employee or employees were last onsite and advises workers to stay home if they feel sick. If someone has been exposed, the company assures, “We will proactively reach out to them individually to advise them of their possible exposure.”
A worker at the local Amazon warehouse, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Bee the messages are not only scary but “basically useless” because they don’t specify how many people are sick or in which department the infection occurred.
The worker said one of his coworkers recently tested positive for the virus. The company never told him he had been exposed, so he got himself tested at work just in case. His results came back negative.
“I’ve got two kids at home. My wife, she’s got one kidney, so I worry about infecting her,” he said. “Any way to get more information would be helpful.”
An Amazon spokesperson told The Bee they share limited information to protect patients’ privacy. She declined to disclose the total number of cases at the Amazon warehouse.
When an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they inform the close contacts they exposed and ask them to quarantine for 14 days with pay, she added.
What health officials know
On June 18, at least 16 people at the same Amazon warehouse had contracted the virus.
Nearly 100 people at Ruiz Foods had tested positive.
Foster Farms, Harris Ranch in Selma, and the Wawona-Gerawan conglomerate, all large agricultural employers, had between 12 and 20 cases each that month, leading officials to classify them as “hotspots” in internal emails.
But at the time of these early outbreaks, the information was not made available by the government to the public or employees. The Bee only gained access to outbreak information through emails and documents from June acquired through Public Records Act requests by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
By the time officials produced the data on Oct. 8, the numbers were outdated and of little use to someone wondering about active outbreaks.
Despite repeated requests for information, the county denied The Bee and other media outlets numbers on active workplace outbreaks, citing privacy concerns.
Officials instead handled outbreaks internally, explained Tom Fuller, an environmental health specialist at the Fresno County Department of Public Health. They visited workplaces they classified as hotspots to carry out inspections and conversations with management.
Foster Farms, the only company that responded to The Bee’s requests for case counts, said there had been two deaths linked to coronavirus complications by Sept. 23 at their Fresno facilities.
The county also tracked data by industry groups, with significant gaps. Of 3,636 coronavirus cases aggregated by industry, over 3,000 cases had no listed occupation, according to a spreadsheet from June 23.
Notably missing were outbreaks among agricultural workers, which researchers at UC Merced have identified are some of the most susceptible to the virus.
Tracking case numbers in the agriculture sector “is more difficult as we do not have occupation for all cases so the number is potentially under-reported and we cannot say to what degree,” wrote Stephanie Koch-Kumar, the Fresno County Department of Health Epidemiologist, in a June 9 email.
Why not share workplace outbreak data?
Public health officials said they keep workplace data private because it is so spotty.
Many people do not fill out employment information when they sign up for a test, either because they are afraid or informally employed, according to Fuller. That’s the case for many farmworkers, he explained.
“I think that’s where our numbers aren’t as good and as accurate,” Fuller said. “Because we rely on people telling us, and a lot of people are not being forthcoming with that information.”
The county is also concerned with telling the full story, and building trust with employers, according to Dave Pomaville, director of the Fresno County Department of Public Health.
For example, a large company that employs 800 people might have 25 infections. But they might be spread across six different locations, and the employer may have been following all the right steps to prevent contagion, Pomaville explained.
“We just have not been prepared, nor do we have the staff to be able to tell that story in all those cases and be fair with regard to the ongoing disease reporting,” he said.
The county, however, encourages employers to talk to employees about infections at their businesses.
“A good employer should. That’s our altruistic vision,” Pomaville said. “That’s how the model works as opposed to they find out from the Department of Public Health that there is an outbreak at Amazon.”
Instead of spending their limited resources on publishing detailed data reports, Pomaville said they were targeting bad actors internally, as they did with agriculture employers this summer.
But like any other public agency, Pomaville admitted the health department is “under-resourced in a lot of areas.”
“Business compliance would be one of them,” he added.
Researchers, on the other hand, argue that any information is better than none.
“I think there’s an inherent understanding that most data sets are imperfect,” said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
Accountability on those actions is fuzzy, however, when neither the health department nor employers make information available to the public. Fuller said they had handled outbreaks to the best of their ability.
“I think there’s a lot of denial about the central role that the workplace is playing in the transmission of COVID,” Padilla added. “In the San Joaquin Valley, where farms and plants employ a large proportion of the community’s workers, employers have a lot of influence over public affairs. So public officials are under a lot of pressure to appear pro-business.”
Merced makes outbreak data public
Unlike Fresno, the Merced County Public Health Department has reported workplace outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic.
At first, they posted how many workers were sick with COVID-19 at each workplace. But smaller businesses with only a handful of employees raised privacy concerns, according to Merced County Public Health Director Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp.
“This county has a lot of small businesses,” she explained. “We were afraid of people being targeted, and that was the feedback we were getting from the businesses.”
Now, they post to their website any workplace with an outbreak, defined as three or more coronavirus cases within a two-week period.
“It’s good. It’s helpful to the community. There’s no reason not to,” Nanyonjo-Kemp said. “I think there’s an awareness now that this information is going to be posted no matter what.”
She said she wouldn’t know if reporting this data was too heavy of a lift on her resource-strained department because they have been doing it from the beginning.
“It’s not burdensome. It’s part of how we do things,” she said.
New law aims to increase transparency
Thanks to a new law that will go into effect on Jan. 1, employers will have to be more transparent with their employees and the health department about what’s going on at work.
Assembly Bill 685, signed into law in September by Gov. Gavin Newsom, requires employers to notify their county health department of the names, number, occupation, and worksite of employees who were infected during a COVID-19 outbreak. Employers will also have to alert employees who were near or in the same worksite as the exposed employee.
The bill language initially required the state health department to post online the location of every outbreak, but The Mercury News reported as a partnership of the California Divide collaboration that that provision got struck out amid business opposition. The bill’s author now says she intends to try again for greater transparency.
Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, told The Bee the intent of AB 685 was that “individual worksite outbreaks would be publicly reported by the Department of Public Health.”
“If this is not being implemented or somehow misinterpreted, I will introduce urgency legislation to clarify this point, Reyes added.
Wayne Fox, director of Fresno County Environmental Health, said the county plans to be compliant with the new law “however it shakes out.”
Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.