A year after the first COVID-19 case hit California, the state agency in charge of policing offices, warehouses, and other workplaces is understaffed and significantly undercounting the number of people in Fresno County and across the state who’ve fallen seriously ill with the coronavirus.

Employers in Fresno County reported only 66 serious worker illnesses or deaths to the Divisions of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, from the start of the pandemic through mid-December, according to data obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request.

The agency’s inspectors determined that only 41 of those serious infections where people were hospitalized or killed were actually contracted in the workplace. That represents a tiny fraction of the nearly 89,000 people who have tested positive for the disease in Fresno County, and less than 4% of over 1,000 people who have died from it.

Statewide, the agency’s inspectors traced back only 779 serious illnesses or infections to the workplace, while 3.2 million Californians have fallen ill and over 40,000 have died.

“The numbers don’t add up.”

tania pacheco-werner, central valley health policy institute

Worker-safety advocates and elected officials say the absence of a reliable count of serious on-the-job infections by Cal/OSHA creates significant consequences. The agency relies on employers to self-report workplace infections, and the incomplete statistics could put workers and their families at greater risk because the state has no clear picture of where COVID-19 workplace hotspots may have flared up.

“The numbers don’t add up,” said Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State. “If we think about what was happening at workplaces, all the calls the county was getting, and if we think about all this confusion about what business actually needed to do or report, that’s pretty troubling.”

While state inspectors have responded to thousands of complaints and levied fines against some workplaces that failed to report serious cases, a long-existing staffing shortage has hindered that process.

The agency’s database includes employer names, inspection numbers, and dates that the businesses reported to the state serious illnesses — defined by Cal/OSHA as cases that resulted in deaths or hospitalization. It is the most detailed official glimpse into how the coronavirus has seriously harmed employees in California.

But it’s far from a complete portrait. The database identifies only businesses that have volunteered information to the state. Workplace researchers, health experts, and lawmakers all agree the data is likely missing swaths of essential workers who were seriously sickened at work.

Taken as a whole, the Cal/OSHA database creates an improbable portrait of significant COVID-19 cases in the workplace. Only six serious, confirmed illnesses have been recorded at poultry processing plants — an industry that, in reality, has been a well-known hotspot for COVID-19. Just 77 serious cases have been tallied across all of California’s agriculture, meat and poultry sectors.

Since the pandemic began, Cal/OSHA has levied some $2.7 million in fines on more than 100 employers that have violated rules related to COVID-19, from improper safety planning and physical distancing to missing plexiglass dividers. Only one Fresno County employer — Pitman Family Farms in Sanger — was hit with a fine. The company was fined $18,000.

According to the citation, Pitman failed to provide face masks and enforce social distancing among employees. However, the same company reported no serious deaths or illnesses to Cal/OSHA last year, according to the database.

Only six serious, confirmed illnesses have been recorded at poultry processing plants — an industry that, in reality, has been a well-known hotspot for COVID-19.

The lopsided reporting of the most serious suspected cases, deaths, and major illnesses, and a de facto honor system for companies to report problems, are the latest in a line of failures at the state’s long-struggling worker safety department, critics said.

“It’s a major, major problem,” said Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, which represents 1,200 unions and 2.1 million workers across the state. “And under COVID-19, there is every indication that this problem has gotten worse.”

Employers ranging from grocers to government bureaucracies are required by law to report each workplace COVID-19 infection that results in an employee’s hospitalization or death. But unlike a traditional workplace injury — caused by someone falling down or being struck by equipment, for example — it can be difficult to prove an employee got sick at work.

Uncontrolled community spread makes it easier for employers to argue workers were infected at a grocery store or restaurant and avoid Cal/OSHA reporting. SB 1159 creates a “presumption” designed to make it easier for sickened employees to receive workers’ comp payments.

In a review of death certificate data, researchers from UC San Francisco recently found that working-age adults have experienced a 22% increase in mortality during the pandemic. The findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, showed significant increases in deaths among essential workers in agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing.

Yet those same fields are minimal in the Cal/OSHA hospitalization and death data, despite the state’s use of strict reporting requirements for serious illness and injury.

Cal/OSHA declined The Bee’s request for an interview for this story. In an emailed response to questions, spokesman Luke Brown acknowledged the challenges the department has been up against during the pandemic.

But, he said, the serious workplace illness and death data “does not reflect the entire picture of Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts.”

Cal/OSHA has opened 1,992 COVID-19 related inspections in the past year, Brown said. Nearly a quarter were for the healthcare sector, 15% were in agriculture, 13% in manufacturing, and 12% in retail.

“We cannot speculate about the number of cases that have not been reported to Cal/OSHA,” Brown said.

Where did workers get sick in Fresno?

Employers in the health industry in Fresno County accounted for the largest portion of serious COVID-19 cases at work locally — about one third, with 14 cases — followed closely by the agricultural industry.

Statewide, nearly half of the reported serious worker illnesses in the Cal/OSHA database stem from health care facilities, including hospitals and long-term care centers. About 10% more stem from law enforcement.

Community Medical Centers in Fresno and Clovis combined reported a total of nine serious COVID-19 cases tied to the workplace. Kaiser Foundation Hospital had three serious illnesses or deaths on the job. Sierra Vista Health Care Center, a nursing facility, and the Department of State hospital, a mental health services provider in Coalinga each reported one case.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office had two serious illnesses or deaths, and Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga reported three serious illnesses or deaths among employees.

Grouped together, the ag industry, including farm labor contractors, frozen food, and poultry processing, accounts for about 10 serious COVID-19 cases contracted on the job in Fresno.

Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement in Fresno, said he could name at least six Punjabi workers who had died from COVID-19 related complications in the agricultural sector — while they make up only a sliver of the farmworker population, which is predominantly Latino.

“That’s why the number is so off,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to those families because they know that their loved one’s dominant exposure was at the workplace. For a company to not take ownership of what it has done to devastate a family, it really talks to the callousness of some companies,” he added.

In the ag sector, Wawona Frozen Foods in Clovis reported one serious case of COVID-19, and Sunwest Fruit Company in Parlier reported two. A handful of smaller labor contractors in Huron and Firebaugh reported single cases as well.

“For a company to not take ownership of what it has done to devastate a family, it really talks to the callousness of some companies.”

Deep Singh, the Jakara Movement

Foster Farms was listed as having only two serious cases of COVID-19 tied to the workplace in Fresno and six statewide, even though at least 193 people contracted the virus at the Cherry Avenue plant, and at least four of their Fresno workers have died from complications related to the virus. The company was listed as having reported a total of 10 serious COVID-19 cases, four of which were not tied to the job.

But Ira Brill, vice president of communications for Foster Farms, said the company reported at least 21 deaths and two hospitalizations to date, the bulk of which occurred before Dec. 15.

Brill said Foster Farms had not reported COVID-19 related illnesses and deaths before September because it was unclear to them whether an illness was considered a workplace accident. That changed when their Livingston plant was shut down over an outbreak, and the state clarified the rules, Brill explained.

“Once the issue of, did they have to be reported, was resolved, we fully filled them in,” he said. “So I don’t get why the database wouldn’t say 21. It would have been prior to September when they could have said there were deaths that haven’t been reported.”

Brill said while workers have fallen ill and died, community spread was to blame.

So far, Foster Farms hasn’t been hit with any fines, according to Cal/OSHA records. Brill said that was because they were not in violation.

Despite workplace outbreaks, Foster Farms hasn’t been hit with any fines, according to Cal/OSHA records.

Farm labor leaders said they’ve been disappointed in Cal/OSHA’s response to the pandemic. Case in point: a major outbreak last year at Primex Farms, a pistachio processing plant in Kern County, where dozens of workers were infected.

Cal/OSHA investigated and slapped the company with fines, including one for $5,000 for not reporting two cases of workers admitted to a hospital with a “COVID-19-related illness.”

But Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer at the United Farm Workers, said the state wasn’t particularly aggressive and seemed to rely heavily on organizations such as the UFW for information.

“You have to provide things on a silver platter,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s a resource issue or what, but it feels like an uphill battle.” He said workers told him that the company staged a “dog and pony show” for Cal/OSHA inspectors. Primex officials didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Cal/OSHA fined the company $27,500 — a figure that Elenes dismissed as “peanuts.” The agency also fined two of Primex’s labor contractors $11,250 each — H&R Labor Contracting and Jacobo Farm Services. Another Primex labor contractor, United Staffing Associates, was fined $27,500.

Why was Fresno County under-reporting COVID-19 on the job?

Pacheco-Werner attributed the low number of serious COVID-19 cases among workers in Fresno County to a lack of clarity among businesses about how to deal with illness on the job.

“We weren’t hearing any information from Cal/OSHA coming out to employers with any sort of clarity, with what they needed to do, what was required versus what was a guideline,” she said.

It wasn’t until Nov. 30 that Cal/OSHA implemented emergency rules related to COVID-19, which are now being challenged in court. The rules mandated that employers, among other things, report COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations and remove from the workplace all employees “who had COVID-19 exposure.”

Meanwhile, hospitalizations and deaths kept rising. Pacheco-Werner said she received regular calls from workers in the community who reported getting seriously ill and spreading the virus to the rest of their family while receiving little to no support from their employers.

The Fresno County Department of Public Health’s Business Liaison Team told The Bee that investigations into workplace illnesses and deaths are under the jurisdiction of Cal/OSHA and declined to comment on the state numbers.

“Based on our analysis of the meatpacking industry, we know there are regional disparities in terms of how enforcement is applied.”

Ana Padilla, executive director of UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center

For its part, Cal/OSHA has struggled for years with staff turnover and hiring process problems.

The department reported 84 vacancies, mostly at district offices, just a few months before the pandemic. That number jumped to more than 130 vacancies by the middle of last year, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the pandemic had put “unprecedented strain” on the department. In his proposed budget released last month, Newsom pledged an additional $14.4 million to bring on 70 new workplace safety inspectors. The positions would be added by mid-year but only after the department “meets its hiring goals.”

Brown, the Cal/OSHA spokesman, said they have made improvements in hiring and have filled 32 enforcement vacancies since the fall. Seven more are in the final stages, and another 25 are in the pipeline. There were 107 job openings posted for the department online as of Friday.

The issues riddling Cal/OSHA are especially pronounced in the central San Joaquin Valley, researchers at University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center found.

Over the last five years, meatpacking and food processing facilities in the Central Valley had the state’s highest rates of accidents, complaints, and whistleblower inspections and among the lowest rates of violations, an August report found. The findings, the researchers concluded, indicated low rates of enforcement and compliance among Central Valley meatpacking employers.

“Based on our analysis of the meatpacking industry, we know there are regional disparities in terms of how enforcement is applied,” said Ana Padilla, executive director of the University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center. “So if the Valley is experiencing regional disparities in how these new rules are enforced, then there’s going to be higher rates of non-compliance.”

Padilla hopes the new data released under AB 685, which mandates that employers report workplace outbreaks, will finally shed light on the role workplaces have played in the spread of the virus.

“Apart from the stories that the media broke on these large outbreaks in the summer, there wasn’t enough public awareness to the risk of COVID-19 in the workplaces,” she said. “Having this data that is supposed to be collected and shared is going to be crucial to have some understanding of how COVID is spreading in the workplace by industry.”

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

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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....

Phillip Reese is a data journalist, an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State and a reporter for The Sacramento Bee.