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'Lives Are On the Line': Vermont Workers Seek More Protections From COVID-19

A red floor sign designates an aisle at Shaws grocery story in Montpelier as one way
Peter Hirschfeld
A floor sign at Shaws grocery story in Montpelier. Many Vermont businesses have tried to minimize exposure to the coronavirus for workers and consumers, but the Department of Labor has been inundated with allegations of workplace safety violations.

State records show that more than 200 workers have filed pandemic-related complaints at the Vermont Department of Labor over the last eight months, but none of the alleged workplace safety violations has resulted in an enforcement action against an employer.

A year ago, most people probably wouldn’t have included grocery store cashiers or elementary school teachers on their lists of most dangerous jobs. The threat of COVID-19, however, has turned ordinary workplaces into public health hazards.

Records requested by VPR show that between March and October of 2020, at least 220 workers filed pandemic-related safety complaints with the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

More from VPR: Grocery Store Employees Now The Crisis Workers That Keep Vermont Fed

That’s a rate of more than one complaint per business day. And Steve Monahan, director of the Workers Compensation and Safety Division at the Department of Labor, said that level of volume is unusually high.

“It’s a significant increase,” Monahan said. “We probably don’t receive 200 complaints in a year.”

Complaints from new sectors

On March 13, Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont.

Less than 24 hours later, VOSHA received its first COVID-related complaint.

It arrived from a worker at a health care center in southern Vermont, who alleged that workers there didn’t have access to appropriate personal protective equipment.

A few days later, in a separate complaint, an employee at a call center in Newport claimed their boss was allowing sick people to come to work.

"You can't really enforce guidance. It's more of a, 'You really ought to do this,' not a, 'Thou shalt do this.'" - Steve Monahan, Vt. Dept. of Labor

That early trickle of complaints would soon turn into a wave. But the safety regulations that govern Vermont employers, according to Monahan, “don’t really contemplate a pandemic.”

And Monahan said VOSHA doesn’t have the authority to enforce executive orders issued by Scott earlier this year that outline pandemic protocols for retailers, restaurants and other employers whose workplaces have been affected by COVID-19.

“You can’t really enforce guidance,” Monahan said. “It’s more of a, ‘You really ought to do this,’ not a, ‘Thou shalt do this.’”

Labor organization says current protections lack teeth

The high volume of workplace safety complaints flooding into VOSHA doesn’t come as a surprise to labor organizations in Vermont.

David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO, said he fields calls from some of his union’s 10,000 members “every day.”

Many workers are afraid, Van Deusen said. He said the lack of enforcement actions against Vermont employers suggests that regulators aren’t doing enough to protect employees from unnecessarily risky exposure to the coronavirus.

More from VPR: 'We Can't Get Subs': Sub Shortage May Cause Schools To Go Remote

“I mean, people’s lives are on the line,” Van Deusen said. “So we can’t wait — we need enforcement actions now.”

Under both state and federal law, employers have a “general duty” to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. Monahan carries a thick book of regulations that spells out precisely what those obligations entail.

"People's lives are on the line. So we can't wait - we need enforcement actions now." - David Van Deusen, Vermont AFL-CIO

But Monahan said provisions related to mask wearing and physical distancing, for instance, don’t appear anywhere in the safety codes.

Monahan said that hasn’t prevented his shop from addressing legitimate workplace safety concerns.

Over the past eight months, VOSHA investigators have been contacting employers to follow up on workers’ concerns. And Monahan says businesses have by and large been amenable to suggestions about how to better protect their workers from the coronavirus.

“I think that’s had a good impact on lessening the number of cases in the workplace.” Monahan said. “I’m not really sure I’m aware of any case where we’ve encountered an employer who simply refused to do anything.”

Union members report safety violations

Van Deusen, however, said he hears a far different story from some members of the AFL-CIO, which includes workers in construction trades, health care, public works departments and just about every other labor sector in Vermont.

Van Deusen said it’s true that existing VOSHA regulations don’t contemplate a pandemic. But he said the Scott administration could institute emergency rules, and give some teeth to their labor watchdogs.

“If they’re going to stop at work zones on the side of the road and cite employers if they don’t have a proper sign package put up, then they should be doing the same type of thing when it comes to social distancing and mask wearing in workplaces,” Van Deusen said.

Monahan said the Department of Labor did consider drafting pandemic-related workplace safety rules. But he said the science on COVID is rapidly evolving. And he said labor regulations that aren’t grounded in scientific evidence could be challenged in court.

"You can't enforce your way into resolution of the pandemic. Because there simply aren't enough enforcement people, and it would be far too draconian." - Steve Monahan, Vt. Dept. of Labor

And Monahan said he’s not sure that enforceable rules would do anything to improve worker safety.

“You can’t enforce your way into resolution of the pandemic,” he said. “Because there simply aren’t enough enforcement people, and it would be far too draconian.”

Van Deusen said he has personal relationships with VOSHA investigators. And he said they’re good people who are committed to fulfilling the agency’s workplace safety mission.

More from VPR: Poll: Vermonters 'Concerned' As Small Businesses Grapple With Pandemic

But he said workers across the state face unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus every day. And he said VOSHA needs to do more to protect them.

“These are scary things,” he said. “And it’s not just scary directly for our members who are working in public and are everyday risking getting infected — it’s scary because they could bring it home.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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