Iowa OSHA has a key duty—to protect workers from life-threatening working conditions like COVID-19. It’s failing to do that, not even following its own rules. Along with 7 other labor and civil rights groups, we just filed a federal complaint against the agency demanding a full investigation.
Representing workers in meatpacking, the dairy industry, construction, transportation, health care facilities, nursing homes, and other industries, our coalition is filing the formal complaint with federal OSHA in an effort to force Iowa OSHA to protect workers from life-threatening working conditions.
Our coalition has filed a CASPA (Complaint About State Program Administration) to urge federal OSHA to launch an investigation into the negligence of Iowa OSHA. With the onset of COVID-19, numerous Iowa workplaces are not properly protecting their workers, and Iowa OSHA is not investigating complaints about those workplaces properly. Further, Iowa OSHA has a long history of not adequately investigating serious and life-threatening work conditions.
It's important to note that the hardest-hit by COVID-19 in the workplace have been immigrants, Black, and Latinx Iowans, who fill front-line and essential worker roles that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. For example, nationally, 44 percent of meatpacking workers are Latinx and 25 percent are Black.
The CASPA is being filed by the ACLU of Iowa, American Friends Service Committee Iowa, Forward Latino, the Iowa AFL-CIO, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors (Iowa JFON), the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, and the Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting (IIIFFC).
Not Following Its Own Rules in Conducting On-Site Inspections
Iowa OSHA's own rules specify that it must do an on-site investigation if 1) a formal complaint, signed by a worker, is made with allegations of working conditions that could lead to serious physical harm or 2) a formal or informal complaint—unsigned by a worker or submitted by a nonworker—is made about working conditions posing an imminent danger. But time and time again, Iowa OSHA has failed to conduct on-site inspections in response to these types of complaints. This has become especially concerning as thousands of Iowa workers have become infected with COVID-19.
As of October 4, workers had filed 148 COVID-19 related complaints with Iowa OSHA that detailed dangerous working conditions; 36 of those were formal complaints. Only five of those complaints (three formal and two informal) resulted in an inspection. All the others were closed with no inspection at all.
Iowa OSHA did conduct 7 other on-site inspections of meatpacking plants, but those came only after a state lawmaker or media reports sounded the alarm publicly about large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks. Those 7 on-site inspections also happened after Iowa OSHA had failed to respond to earlier complaints.
In case after case, it is clear that Iowa OSHA's lack of action likely resulted in unnecessary serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19.
Workplaces Not Inspected
The CASPA details the many failings of Iowa OSHA to protect workers, according to complaints filed alleging the following imminent dangers to workers:
- On July 3, a complaint was filed with Iowa OSHA alleging that an employee was working even after they had tested positive for COVID-19 at Good Shepherd Health Center in Mason City. Good Shepherd went on to become the site of one of the largest known nursing home-based outbreaks of COVID-19 in the state so far, with 122 residents and staffers becoming infected as of August 3.
- On April 1, LULAC contacted Iowa OSHA, filing a complaint about life-threatening working conditions at the JBS/Swift Pork Processing Plant in Marshalltown. The complaint said that JBS was requiring people to work even if they showed signs of COVID-19. Iowa OSHA, in violation of its own policies, declined to do an on-site inspection and instead merely sent a letter to the employer and closed the case. Iowa OSHA later did conduct an inspection of JBS in Marshalltown in late May 21 only after the media reported on the outbreaks in the plant.
- In early April, Iowa OSHA received a complaint about the Agri Star Processing Plant in Postville not following guidelines, including employees working close together, employees being required to come to work ill, and lack of personal protective equipment. Further, management allegedly was telling workers "COVID-19 is a lie." All Iowa OSHA did was write a letter to the employer, receive a letter back from the employer, and closed the case with no inspection. A month later, there were 400 COVID-19 cases in the plant.
- In April, a complaint was filed with Iowa OSHA that Tyson Foods Pork in Perry, which employs 1,250 people, was not following social distancing guidelines, including in the cafeteria and on the production floor, with people working elbow to elbow. Again, no inspection was done in violation of Iowa OSHA rules. Instead, Iowa OSHA simply wrote a letter, asked for a response, and closed the case. However, Iowa OSHA was delayed even in doing that, waiting nine days to send the letter, and allowing eight more days for the company to respond. Then, just one week after Iowa OSHA closed the case, an outbreak of COVID-19 raced through the plant; 730 workers, or 58 percent of the plant, tested positive.
- Employees who were documented as being at high-risk for COVID-19 were still compelled to work. At the Community Choice Credit Union in Johnston, for example, the complaint alleged employees who were pregnant, had asthma and/or hepatitis were required to work in the call center, despite having a doctor's note confirming their medical condition.
- Workers were being required to come to work even though they were actively ill with COVID-19. One example complaint concerned Care Initiatives in Odebolt, which operates a number of nursing homes throughout the state. The complaint alleged that employees who called in with temperatures and other COVID-19 symptoms, such as a sore throat, nausea, or dizziness, were told that they must come into work anyway.
- Facilities were not being cleaned and disinfected even after workers tested positive, according to a complaint about Prairie Farms Dairy in Dubuque.
- Testing was inadequate. At Ryan Companies in Dubuque, one complaint alleged, a number of employees had symptoms and were given a phone number to get a test but couldn't get the test. Meanwhile, the complaint alleged, some employees were not wearing masks, 6-foot distancing wasn't maintained in stairways and break areas, and hand sanitizer was not being replaced.
Long History of Inadequate Response by Iowa OSHA
While the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the problems at Iowa OSHA, our investigation showed that Iowa OSHA's failure to protect workers can be documented as far back as 2017.
Iowa OSHA has a legal duty to protect workers, especially during a pandemic. Workers are dying, and the agency is doing very little to prevent that. We’re asking federal OSHA to step in and force change to protect Iowans where the state has failed to do so. We are also hoping this complaint will be a springboard for state policymakers to take state-level action to protect Iowa workers.