Throughout the pandemic, thousands of people working in fields, processing plants, and grocery stores have contracted COVID-19 on the job, and hundreds have died. Many reported shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other dangerous conditions to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with protecting them at work. Under the Trump administration, OSHA was slow to respond and conducted very few inspections in response to those complaints. When it did begin fining companies for failing to meet guidelines, the penalties were paltry.
Now, advocates for worker rights are hopeful as President Biden has named a new leader for the agency, Doug Parker, the former head of California’s state-level OSHA.
Cal/OSHA is known for having stronger standards than OSHA. And for food workers, Parker’s track record in California not only provides insights into how he might run OSHA, but it means he’ll bring with him the experience of managing worker protections in the country’s largest agricultural state.
OSHA’s structure as a federal agency is unique. States have the option of running their own agency, and OSHA only has jurisdiction over those states that opt not to do so. Currently, 21 states (plus four that only cover state employees), including California, run their own agencies. Their standards must meet minimum federal standards, but they can extend further.
Cal/OSHA’s approach to protecting workers in the food industry during the pandemic has differed from the federal agency’s in at least two ways. First, it issued an Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 workplace protections. Second, the agency has proposed $1.4 million in fines to be paid by farms, meatpackers, supermarket chains, and food service operations. In comparison, OSHA has issued penalties of just over $145,000 to food and agriculture companies across all the 29 states for which it’s responsible.
However, enormous challenges await. “Trump really hollowed out the agency in a way that the Bush administration did not do,” said Debbie Berkowitz, the worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), who served as OSHA’s chief of staff during the Obama administration. Under Trump, OSHA had the smallest number of inspectors in its history, completed far fewer inspections, and left nearly half of its leadership positions vacant, including the position Parker will fill, which has been open since January 2017. Now, re-energizing the agency will depend on new leadership as well as on appropriations from Congress.
“Workers really deserve to have their rights enforced, but it’s a huge lift,” said Berkowitz.
Standards and Enforcement in California
Parker served in a different agency within the Department of Labor under President Obama, which Berkowitz says gives him familiarity with the large department’s processes. He then led Worksafe for more than three years, guiding the California nonprofit in its campaigns for stronger worker protections related to wildfire smoke, toxic chemicals, and workplace safety. (Civil Eats requested interviews with Parker through Cal/OSHA and the DOL, but the agencies did not respond.)
Worksafe was one of several organizations that pushed Cal/OSHA to implement emergency rules in March 2019 to protect state workers from wildfire smoke. Those rules required farms to provide masks to farmworkers, for example, when air quality reached unhealthy levels. Parker’s tenure as chief of Cal/OSHA began in September 2019, and under his leadership, the agency extended those emergency rules.
Just six months later, COVID-19 struck. California’s food workers were hit hard by the pandemic, and the agency responded to that reality with a combination of enforcement and rulemaking.
Before the state set emergency rules, Cal/OSHA was more vigorously investigating and fining businesses that were failing to follow COVID-19 protection guidance than the federal agency. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Cal/OSHA has proposed a total of over $4.6 million in fines across all industries, compared to $4 million in initial penalties at the federal level.
In California, the proportion of those fines that were levied against employers in the food and agriculture industry was also significantly higher. That’s at least partially due to California’s outsize food industry, but not entirely. Cal/OSHA, for example, fined grocery stores a total of $181,000, including Ralph’s locations that had severe COVID-19 outbreaks with worker deaths. Outbreaks also occurred at grocery stores in states covered by OSHA, but the federal agency issued no citations against retail food stores.
Similarly, OSHA covers many states that had serious COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, including Arkansas, Kansas, Illinois, and South Dakota, but its fines against food processors (including meatpackers) added up to about one-sixth of the total issued by Cal/OSHA.