Since the early days of the pandemic, one group has quietly, but consistently, been raising red flags around COVID-19 safety: workers.
In the Chicago area, workers from every sector of the economy have filed more than 1,000 complaints, alerting the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to unsafe conditions at work, including direct exposure to the virus.
The complaints, among 31,000 made nationwide, are an on-the-ground view from workers who have been forced to continue laboring outside their homes amidst the deadly pandemic. They form a record of palpable concerns from the area’s essential workers, and a clear warning that conditions are not safe and people are getting sick.
Around 60% of all complaints were filed last spring as society adjusted to life with the coronavirus, but they continue to roll in. And there was an increase in complaints filed in October, as a recent surge in COVID-19 cases hit the area.
Nearly half the area’s complaints come from employees in manufacturing and health care, but they also include retail establishments, like restaurants and grocery stores, and public facilities, like post offices, libraries and schools.
“COVID positive employees are still making and selling pizzas,” said one complaint filed from an area pizzeria in mid-August. “Employer is aware and encouraging this.”
The complaints, which OSHA has closed, include a summary of the employee’s complaint and the establishment’s name and address.
WBEZ is publishing a searchable database with all 1,045 complaints closed by Nov. 8 from workers in seven counties: Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties in Illinois, and Lake County in Indiana. There are additional open complaints from our region that don’t list an employer or address.
Can’t see the data? Click here.
A Warning to Chicagoland
Chicago-area McDonald’s restaurants attracted some two dozen complaints from workers — more than any other employer in the region.
McDonald’s corporate office said the complaints are “inaccurate” and part of “an SEIU-backed public relations campaign.” The Service Employees International Union has been trying to unionize McDonald’s workers.
McDonald’s president recently said the company worked with contagious disease experts to develop 50 enhanced safety measures and then “implemented the swiftest and largest operational transformation in our history.”
Among the allegations detailed in the 22 local, closed complaints against McDonald’s are that restaurants aren’t sanitized, even after workers test positive for COVID-19; that managers don’t wear masks at work; and that employees aren’t told if coworkers catch COVID-19.
Wendy Gonzalez, an employee at the McDonald’s restaurant on 35th Street in Chicago, said she was forced to work near employees who were clearly sick.
“He would be in the corner complaining that he was feeling nauseous, that his stomach was hurting,” said Gonzalez of one of her coworkers. She said bosses sent him home, but he returned within days and was still feeling ill. “He just went and [sat] down in the back room.”
Around the same time, a manager disappeared for nearly a month. Gonzalez said no one would tell her whether her coworkers were being sickened by COVID-19.
“They’re just leaving us in the dark. They’re not telling us information about who is getting sick and if they’re exposing us,” Gonzalez said. “People [are] getting sick. They’re not going to the doctor; they’re going to work. So everybody’s exposed, us as workers and the customers.”
With the help of the union, Gonzalez filed a complaint with OSHA earlier this month. It’s still being investigated.At another McDonald’s in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood, employees said six workers had COVID-19 in October. Kenia Campeano was one of them — she said she spread the virus to her entire family. Campeano said she knows of three McDonald’s employees who’ve died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started.
“These complaints are a really important warning to Chicagoland and to the nation, that these conditions exist, that workers are scared and that someone ought to be forcing these companies — whether it’s the media or OSHA or the governor or the attorney general — to get up, smell the coffee, protect workers and stop this epidemic,” said Eric Frumin, health and safety director with Change to Win, a coalition of unions including SEIU.
Frumin pointed to a recent Harvard University paper that found increased worker complaints actually predicted a spike in deaths two weeks later.
Frumin and other worker advocates are outraged that OSHA has done so few on-site inspections during the pandemic. Instead, the agency has been investigating the tsunami of worker complaints by talking with employers via fax or phone.
In the Chicago area, out of 1,045 closed complaints, OSHA did just six site inspections.
Only 11 Illinois facilities have received citations or fines during the entire pandemic. Most of those inspections were triggered by an employee dying, pointed out Peg Seminario. For 30 years, Seminario worked as the director of occupational safety for the AFL-CIO, a federation of dozens of labor unions.
Without site visits or penalties, labor advocates said employers will do whatever they please.
And Seminario said consequences resonate: “This isn’t just about what’s going on in workplaces. This virus — what happens in the workplace is going home to communities.”
Flashpoint: Lake County, Ind.
Lake County, Ind., accounted for 20% of all complaints filed by employees in the seven-county Chicago region examined by WBEZ, even though it only makes up just 6% of that area’s population. The blue-collar county is home to scores of essential workers in manufacturing, retail, transportation and food services.
Waitress Iris Ramirez, 20, said she thinks she caught COVID-19 at Round the Clock, a popular 24-hour restaurant in Highland, Ind.
“I wanted to get tested because I started developing symptoms, but my manager told me, ‘Oh, it’s probably nothing, just come into work.’ ”
Ramirez said she was working 70 to 80 hours a week, and she felt pressured to come in even as she awaited results from a COVID-19 test. She said her manager “didn’t force me, but he was definitely telling me just to make light of the symptoms.”
She ended up testing positive and quit her job.
A complaint was filed against Round the Clock — Ramirez said it wasn’t her — alleging the restaurant isn’t being cleaned properly and bosses pressure employees to come to work, even if they might have COVID-19.
Owner Elias Litos denied all allegations.
“We would never do that,” he said. Litos said he provided documentation to OSHA to show he’s in compliance with all COVID-19 safety guidelines, and the case was closed. No inspection was conducted.
Still, Litos said some complaints against other employers may have merit.
“There are businesses doing things they are not supposed to be doing. I think they should be exposed, but you’ve got to make sure you are getting the right information,” Litos said.Across the metro area, manufacturing has attracted more complaints than any other industry.
At the Lear Corporation, a Fortune 500 company that makes automobile seats at a plant in Hammond, workers have cited problems throughout the pandemic. At least one complaint has been filed in March, May, June, July and September — for a total of seven.
The company declined to comment on any of them.
Linda Forst, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, said it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Workplaces can be made safe,” Forst said. “If workplaces are made safe, then people can go to work, and they’re not going to get sick there.”
Forst said social distancing, masks, paid sick leave and healthcare coverage can make a difference. “If those measures aren’t taken, then everything has to shut down. And that’s a shame, a shame for everybody.”
Forst said the OSHA complaints are important because workers are on the ground, seeing exactly what is happening or not happening in the workplace. And even if OSHA has closed the complaints, she said they could still be used by local or state governments to analyze what stays open and what doesn’t — what businesses are truly essential.
Gonzalez, the McDonald’s worker with sick coworkers — said putting her name to a complaint made her feel like she was standing up for herself and others.
“Somebody has to start,” Gonzalez said. “I had to do something because I love my family; I love myself. And I didn’t work at McDonald’s to get sick or die there.”