Oregon safety officials field avalanche of mask-related complaints

State has not issued any fines or citations since August, though OSHA has conducted about two dozen inspections

By: - October 5, 2021 5:10 am

During the pandemic, OSHA grappled with more than 30,000 complaints about masking, physical distancing and signs. (Getty Images)

In one month, Oregonians filed nearly 3,000 complaints against employers alleging violations of Gov. Kate Brown’s latest indoor mask mandate, but less than 1% has faced inspection.

Oregon Occupational Safety & Health, which investigates workplace violations, is scrambling to keep up with an avalanche of complaints related to COVID-19. The new mandate went into effect Aug. 13.

Since the pandemic began, Oregon health and safety officials have fielded nearly 30,000 complaints related to COVID-19 rules. 

The volume is unprecedented.

“In a typical non-pandemic year, we’d receive just over 2,000,” said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for Oregon OSHA. 

By late September, the health and safety office had issued more than 200 citations and collected about $750,000 in fines for violations before the most recent mask rules. 

“Oregon OSHA inspectors do not have ticket books,” Corvin said. “Our process is not like pulling a speeder over and issuing a ticket. Interventions can take time, especially with such a high volume of COVID-19 complaints.”

He said that before the pandemic, OSHA staff carried out inspections in half the cases. Now, more than 90% of COVID-19 complaints are handled by phone or email.

Still, the pandemic has stretched the office. 

“It’s fair to say it bent our system, but it didn’t break it,” Corvin said.

According to OSHA records, the latest batch of complaints have come from every corner of the state and covered a range of businesses. 

With the exception of Washington County, counties with the biggest cities, including Portland, Bend, Medford and Eugene, drew the most complaints, with Multnomah at the top.

Businesses facing complaints spanned massage parlors to pharmacies and manufacturing plants to gyms. They also included services, such as local government and schools. 

But restaurants, grocery stores and retailers have sparked the most complaints, Corvin said.

Though masks are now required inside such public places, businesses are no longer under capacity restrictions limiting the number of people. Social distancing and good ventilation help prevent infections, with masks curbing transmission rates by 30%, state health officials said in a forecast in mid-September.

“The governor’s goal during the delta surge is to save lives, protect hospital capacity and keep Oregon businesses, schools and communities open,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman. “Every time Oregonians mask up, they help us work toward that goal.”

A majority of residents appear to have backed that aim, with more than 80% of Oregonians wearing masks indoors in public places and in crowded areas outside, according to Peter Graven, lead data scientist in the business intelligence unit at Oregon Health & Science University. 

“Oregon's rate went up quicker and higher than other places,” Graven said.

Few go public

Most people file complaints online, either anonymously or confidentially, keeping their name from public view. 

Corvin said every complaint results in an email or phone call to the employer.

“There is a back-and-forth that takes place during such an inquiry, where we’re asking the employer to respond to the allegations and address them,” Corvin said.

Few businesses have been inspected over a Covid complaint. The office, with 85 inspectors,  doesn’t have enough staff, Corvin said. 

A business with a history of ignoring safety rules is more likely to get inspected, Corvin said. When the response is not adequate, or if the business owner is defiant, staff also inspect the site. 

Visits are not announced in advance.

Inspectors have visited four school districts and two schools since Aug. 13, including Harrisburg, Adrian, Winston-Dillard, Amity, Good Shepherd School and New Hope Christian School. None has yet been cited. Corvin said the investigations are ongoing. 

Our process is not like pulling a speeder over and issuing a ticket.

– Aaron Corvin, Oregon OSHA spokesman

The state has also received complaints about police.

“The Douglas County Sheriff, Thomas Wheeler, announced that county employees will not be following Kate Brown's mandates regarding the COVID-19 protocol and mask mandates,” one complaint said.

Some businesses have appeared defiant.

Six complaints in the past month against Starduster Cafe in Independence said neither customers nor staff were wearing masks and that the cafe did not post a sign about the mandate as required. 

It did post other messages, however.

“ (A) sign on both front and back door (states) that any government official entering the restaurant for the purpose of checking on mask enforcement is considered to be trespassing and the police will be called,” the complaint said.

A manager, who identified herself as Amy on the phone, declined to comment about the sign.

“We’re just trying to run our business,” she told the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Amy Baker co-owns the business with her husband, according to a report in the Polk County Itemizer-Observer.

Defiance is not encouraged by the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, which represents nearly 3,000 restaurants, drive-throughs and food carts.

“We recommend that everybody follow those mass mandates,” said Greg Astley, association director of government affairs. “It's going to help us to get out of this more quickly.”

Most employers have followed the rules, according to state officials.

“There's certainly been what I would describe as a vocal minority who's been unwilling to follow the requirements,” Corvin said, “but I think by and large, at most employers are trying to do the right thing.”

Among the 200 COVID-19-related citations issued since the pandemic began, 40 have been “willful violations,” state data show. Most fines are in the hundreds of dollars but the state jacks up the penalty when companies intentionally flout the rules. 

About 20% of the violations have been deliberate, state data show. 

“We've had a relatively high number of those during the pandemic,” Corvin said.

The fines have ranged from a minimum of $8,900 against several restaurants to the maximum: $126,749 against Capitol Racquet Sports in Salem. The gym, which operates as Courthouse Club Fitness,has racked up more than $216,000 in penalties and is appealing.

Companies often settle, Corvin said. 

Safety and health officials keep complainants up-to-date despite the huge volume of allegations.

“We’re doing the best we can to motor forward,” Corvin said.

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.