Employees of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works have filed a formal complaint against The City, alleging it has failed to protect frontline workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Laborers International Union, Local 261, on behalf of roughly 350 DPW employees, says The City has violated state law by creating workplace conditions that endanger the health and safety of workers, and it lodged an Imminent Hazard Complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the agency responsible for ensuring worker safety on Jan. 29.
State officials enacted sweeping emergency reform in November 2020 to empower Cal/OSHA to ensure job sites and workplaces were adhering to strict guidelines intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. But Laborers’ Local 261 says DPW has repeatedly failed to comply with state standards.
The union’s complaint alleges DPW has failed to enforce its mask mandate, create handwashing stations, make sanitary restrooms available during work hours or sanitize areas used by employees, all of which are included in the roster of mandates enacted last year to protect frontline workers.
“San Francisco talks a good game about protection and prevention, but they treat their own workers as if we are expendable,” said Theresa Foglio-Ramirez, business agent for Laborers’ Local Union 261, in a statement.
By contrast, the Department of Public Works says it has taken the threat of transmission “very seriously” and “has made significant changes to the organization to address health and safety requirements” including health screenings, mask mandates, physical distancing procedures, staggered shift times and additional disinfection of facility common areas.
Of the 1,463 Public Works employees, 29 have tested positive since Nov. 25, according to DPW, which added only one case had likely been transmitted in the workplace based on contact tracing.
However, at least nine DPW employees have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last three weeks, all of whom report to the 2323 Cesar Chavez St. maintenance yard facility, according to the complaint.
One of those individuals has since been hospitalized, and the medical condition of the rest is unknown.
According to the complaint, the nine employees who have tested positive regularly enter various locations throughout the maintenance yard while on the job, including break rooms, dispatch rooms, locker rooms, restrooms, hallways and other indoor areas.
The report alleges 200 employees could have been exposed to the virus as a result.
“Local 261 is extremely concerned about the welfare of its members,” the complaint says.
DPW told the Examiner that this “recent surge in reported COVID-19 cases among employees” mirrors what’s happened across California and the rest of the country.
Foglio-Ramirez called the on-the-ground circumstances “dire,” describing instances where employees are forced to share poorly maintained public restrooms or left without access to basic cleaning facilities.
Laborers Local 261 says these conditions have persisted for months. They first lodged a complaint with Cal/OSHA on July 28 focusing on the lack of “reasonable access to sanitary and safe restrooms” throughout the pandemic.
Ordinarily, Public Works employees are told to use public facilities encountered in the field as opposed to returning to the maintenance yard to use the restroom.
Since COVID-19 struck, many of the locations DPW workers used, such as coffee shops, restaurants and convenience stores, have closed their restroom facilities or shuttered altogether, making it nearly impossible for field workers to find safe, sanitary locations to wash hands or go to the bathroom, the complaint asserts.
“Nevertheless, every day The City turns a blind eye to the fact that its SF Public Works employees are unable to wash their hands with soap and water, even before meal times,” it says.
For its part, DPW says it provides staff with supplies to disinfect work trucks and tools and provides access to restrooms and hand sanitizer, however it did not specify the locations.
Laborers’ Local 261 has asked Cal/OSHA to use “the strictest penalties available” to compel The City to comply with state workplace health standards as well as issue citations with monetary penalties immediately.
Foglio-Ramirez told the Examiner all the union wants is “sanitary designated restrooms to use and wash our hands.” She suggested arrangements to share facilities with other city departments or renting out portable restrooms to put at fire stations or police precincts across The City.