Are workplaces as safe as the governor says?

Some evidence suggests they are key part of current surge

AS THE RATE of COVID-19 infection in Massachusetts has begun rising again, Gov. Charlie Baker claims that the workplace “does not show up as the big driver” of new cases. Given the lack of publicly available data, it is unclear how he can make that claim. Hundreds of organizations came together to advocate for the COVID-19 Data Bill, signed into law on June 8, which requires the collection of occupation and other data on COVID-19 infections and deaths. Five months later, occupation is still missing on approximately 90 percent of daily reported cases. This continuing failure makes it extremely difficult to accurately track and contain workplace exposure. Still, there are a number of reasons to believe that workplace-related infections are an important part of the current spike.

We know the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards has opened 1,260 cases investigating health and safety complaints, and they found violations of the state’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulations in 44 percent of these cases; and these safety regulations do not even address aerosol microdroplet transmission. Moreover, these numbers do not count the hundreds of complaints made directly to local boards of health, or those to the Attorney General’s office — some from workers who are being denied the sick time they need to stay home when they are ill.

We also know that the state’s Contact Tracing Collaborative and several local boards of health have asked the Department of Labor Standards to investigate 41 workplace clusters reported since July, many as large as 14-15 workers and one affecting 36. Recently released state data, while not comprehensive, indicate that more than 230 clusters in the month of October were associated with worksites.

In September, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO released Dying for Work: Documenting the Pandemic’s Deadly Toll on Massachusetts Workers which lists 59 workers known to have died of COVID-19 after potentially being exposed at work.

We acknowledge that this is likely just the tip of the iceberg and a gross undercount given the lack of available data on occupation, industry, or employer. We do know that  about 128,000 Massachusetts working-age residents (20-69) tested positive for COVID-19 from March 10 to September 30 and 1,493 died. But because of the lack of data, it is hard to confirm how many were essential workers likely exposed on the job. However, the fact that more than 5,700 reports were made to workers’ compensation insurers for workplace exposure in that same period gives some indication of the widespread impact.

Given the picture painted by these numbers, it is hard to understand why the governor continues to insist that the number of workplace-related cases of COVID-19 is insignificant. Instead, he chooses to imply that the recent spike in cases is due to “young people under 30” behaving irresponsibly. While no doubt some are, this group also includes essential workers, parents, public school teachers, and students. Many of these people are taking every precaution but cannot avoid exposure, largely because of the lack of protections provided by the state.

Missing entirely from the governor’s rhetoric is any acknowledgment that his own actions and policies are based on unclear data and science and that they are, on the face, insufficient to stopping the spread. For example, on what basis did the governor decide that closing restaurants and casinos at 9:30 p.m. is an appropriate response when the COVID virus spreads during the day and we do not have data that tracks infections of restaurant or casino workers?

Is the governor willing to consider that his administration’s Massachusetts COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulations — which leave out entire sectors like education, childcare, and healthcare, and have minimal enforcement mechanisms tied to them — are not adequately protecting workers? Perhaps Baker should spend less time lecturing the public on the importance of personal responsibility and accept more of the responsibility himself.

Meet the Author

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan

Executive director, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health
Meet the Author

Chrissy Lynch

Chief of staff, Massachusetts AFL-CIO
Meet the Author

Carlene Pavlos

Executive director, Massachusetts Public Health Association
What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a worker health and safety crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Yes, Governor Baker, “people need to work.” But the state has an obligation to ensure that no one is getting sick or dying for a paycheck.

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan is executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, Chrissy Lynch is chief of staff at the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and Carlene Pavlos is executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.