A year after the first COVID-19 case hit California, Cal/OSHA – the state agency in charge of policing warehouses, offices, factories and other workplaces – is woefully understaffed and significantly undercounting the number of employees who have fallen seriously ill or died as a result of the coronavirus.
California employers reported only 1,600 serious worker illnesses or deaths to the Division 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 779 of those serious or deadly infections were actually contracted in the workplace. That represents a tiny fraction of the 3.2 million people who have tested positive for the disease in California, and less than 2 percent of the more than 41,000 who have died from it.
“It’s troubling; it absolutely is troubling,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D- San Mateo, who co-authored legislation last year strengthening workers’ compensation protections for employees who contract COVID-19 on the job.
Cal/ OSHA officials “have a responsibility to make sure … those employee environments are safe,” Hill said. “We want to guarantee the employer is doing everything possible. … That’s where Cal/ OSHA has to have accurate data.”
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. There were 107 job openings posted for the department as of Friday.
Asked about overlooked infections, Cal/ OSHA spokesman Luke Brown said: “We cannot speculate about the number of cases that have not been reported to Cal/ OSHA.”
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.
“Obviously, that is way under the experience that has been reported daily about the huge numbers of serious illnesses and deaths among vulnerable communities who are people who have not been able to shelter at home,” said Laura Stock, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program.
Taken as a whole, the Cal/ OSHA database creates an improbable portrait of significant COVID-19 cases in the workplace. Only four serious, confirmed illnesses have been recorded at poultry processing plants – an industry that, in reality, has been a well-known hot spot for COVID-19. Just 77 serious cases have been tallied across all of California’s agriculture, meat and poultry sectors.
According to Cal/ OSHA’s data, Sacramento County had 51 confirmed workplace infections. That’s second only to the 220 cases reported in Los Angeles County – one of the nationwide epicenters for COVID-19. More than 16,000 Angelenos have died and more than 1 million have contracted the diseases, according to Los Angeles County health officials.
“If you’re not paying attention, and documenting where and why people are getting sick and dying, (the virus) doesn’t just stay in the workplace,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “It goes back to families. It goes back to whole communities.”
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.