Groups Claim Iowa Has Not Protected Workers During Pandemic

A sign sits in front of the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Iowa has for years failed to adequately enforce federal workplace health and safety regulations, which has taken on critical importance during the current Covid-19 outbreak, according to a complaint filed by labor, civil rights and faith-based groups.

Iowa is one of a number of states that enforce federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations through a state agency. But the administrative complaint filed Friday with the regional federal OSHA office in Kansas City, Missouri, says the state has failed in that job.

The state OSHA agency is understaffed, often fails to respond to workers’ complaints, closes cases without making on-site visits, and rarely imposes significant sanctions against employer violations, according to the complaint.

The groups that filed the so-called CASPA – short for complaint about state program administration – are urging federal OSHA to launch an investigation into Iowa’s agency and order that the state correct any failures to enforce federal regulations.

“Iowa OSHA has a legal responsibility to assure safe and healthful working conditions for workers in Iowa. However, Iowa OSHA has abdicated this responsibility,” the complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa says. “The Iowa OSHA program is required to be at least as effective as federal OSHA. But Iowa OSHA falls far short of the protections offered by federal OSHA.”

In a statement Friday, Iowa OSHA said it will “fully cooperate with federal investigative authorities” and respond to any findings or recommendations.

“We would welcome the federal OSHA investigation, which will address the complaint items,” the state agency said.

While the complaint says the Iowa agency has long been lax in enforcing worker health and safety protections in a variety of Iowa industries, its shortcomings have been brought into sharp relief this year during the Covid-19 outbreak. And the problem is particularly serious in meatpacking plants in Iowa.

“Covid-19 has spread throughout Iowa meat and poultry processing plant workers at an alarming rate. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and other news sources have reported that 3,840 meatpacking workers in Iowa have tested positive for Covid-19; many were hospitalized and some have died,” the complaint states.

Yet, the eight organizations say Iowa OSHA has not responded to workers’ complaints.

“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,” the ACLU of Iowa said in a news release Friday. “Only five of those complaints (three formal and two informal) resulted in an inspection. All the others were closed with no inspection at all.” (Parentheses in original.)

It continued, “Iowa OSHA did conduct seven 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 seven on-site inspections also happened after Iowa OSHA had failed to respond to earlier complaints. If Iowa OSHA would have responded to the Covid-19 complaints earlier with on-site inspections, those outbreaks might well have been reduced.”

The complaint quotes from a Des Moines Register story in April in which Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson was alarmed after visiting a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo.

“We walked into that plant and some people are wearing homemade masks, some people are wearing bandannas, and some people aren’t wearing anything,” Thompson said. “They’re working elbow-to-elbow. Some are reaching over the top of others on the food production lines. They deep clean once a night. They felt like they were doing a good job, and we walked out of there thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, if this is the bare minimum, this isn’t enough.’”

Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz, a community organizer for the American Friends Service Committee Iowa whose parents immigrated to Iowa to work in meatpacking plant, said at an ACLU press conference Friday that 10 members of his family have tested positive for Covid-19. He said meatpacking plant workers need someone to be a voice for their concerns.

“Iowa OSHA should be one of those” voices, he said, “but it seems Iowa has refused to play that role.”

The federal OSHA complaint was filed by the ACLU of Iowa; American Friends Service Committee Iowa; Forward Latino; the Iowa AFL-CIO; Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement; Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors; the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens; the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Counci; and the Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting.

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