California still won’t make COVID-19 workplace outbreaks public
Faced with business opposition, a state lawmaker fails to deliver on a pledge to require companies to report COVID outbreaks publicly. Supporters vow to fight for transparency in the name of public health and workplace safety.
Supporters of a push to require companies to report workplace coronavirus outbreaks publicly say they plan to keep fighting despite recent setbacks that they say allow big businesses to keep outbreaks secret.
In February, Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, proposed a law requiring the California Department of Public Health to report COVID-19 outbreaks by workplace location, meaning outbreaks at specific businesses would be disclosed to the public.
But that requirement was dropped from the bill’s final version, allowing companies — and public health officials — to withhold coronavirus outbreak information from the public. Instead, health officials will report infections by industry.
Worker advocates say this leaves workers and the public vulnerable and in the dark.
“Public disclosure of this data shouldn’t be as contentious as it is,” said Ana Padilla, executive director at UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
Some say COVID-19 reporting requirement was ‘overreach’
The new bill was supposed to build upon last year’s Assembly Bill 685, which was inspired in part by a joint investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian for the California Divide on unreported COVID outbreaks among guest farmworkers. That bill requires employers to notify workers of COVID-19 outbreaks and allows Cal/OSHA to fine employers and shut down workplaces for serious coronavirus violations and outbreaks.
In an interview last year with The Bee, Reyes said that the original goal was that “individual worksite outbreaks would be publicly reported by the Department of Public Health.” But the final version only required the state to report the total number of outbreaks by industry sector — without naming employers.
Her follow-up legislation, Assembly Bill 654, was supposed to clarify this point.
But the bill faced opposition from Assembly Republicans and business groups, such as the California Chamber of Commerce and Western Growers.
The final version removed the individual worksite outbreak reporting requirement when it failed to get enough votes to pass the Assembly in June. There were 22 “no” votes, primarily from Republican lawmakers.
Assemblymember Jim Patterson, who represents parts of Fresno and Tulare counties, said he supported removing the requirement because it eliminated what he called “public shaming” language.
“It was the excessive overreach of the bill,” said Patterson.
Reyes’ office didn’t comment on the removal of the language about individual worksite outbreak reporting requirements. “We will continue to seek solutions that protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic or any future pandemics,” according to a statement.
Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, also voted against the workplace reporting requirement. He could not be reached for comment.
Should California companies publicly report COVID-19 outbreaks?
Padilla said that a lack of explicit workplace outbreak requirements should “concern” the public. Outbreak data is crucial to keeping communities safe.
“We need the data to mitigate the spread of COVID in real-time, in particular in workplaces,” said Padilla. “We also need workplace data to inform the development of policies that can improve working conditions and potentially save worker lives.
“By prohibiting the publication of data that tells us where outbreaks are happening, we’re limiting our ability to understand the quickly changing and really dangerous virus,” said Padilla.
Padilla pointed to the COVID-19 outbreak at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston last year, where the plant had a 40% COVID-19 positivity rate. In a September 2020 Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting, health department officials confirmed this was over eight times higher than the COVID-19 positivity rate in Merced County at the time.
“It was eight times higher than the county’s own positivity rate, and still, they were pointing the fingerat the community, saying ‘it’s the community spread,’” said Padilla.
Foster Farms responded to the comments on their COVID-19 response and outbreak reporting.
“Foster Farms has performed over 130,000 COVID-19 tests in California — more than 80,000 in Merced County — with an overall positivity rate of less than 1%, and has provided all of this data to the State of California,” said Ira Brill, vice president of communications for the poultry plant.
“Foster Farms has provided, and continues to provide, its workforce with information about COVID-19 and vaccinations in multiple languages, including Spanish and Punjabi. These are the facts,” Brill said.
Foster Farms wasn’t the only central San Joaquin Valley company to have its COVID protections scrutinized during the earliest months of the pandemic.
Last year, workers at Fresno’s Amazon warehouse criticized the company’s infection reporting policies, saying workers received only vague information about possible exposures and infection numbers.
According to an analysis by UC Merced, most workers who have died of COVID-19 in California’s top 10 high-risk industries were primarily from Latino and immigrant backgrounds. These industries include warehousing, agriculture, and food processing.
“I think the people in the state Capitol that were busy negotiating away the crucial provisions in the bill … don’t share the same background as the low-wage workers of color” who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, said Padilla.
She said she hopes to see another iteration of the bill that requires workplace outbreak data by industry, by county, by employer. Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 10 to sign or veto the bill.
This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.