Advocates want a hotline for Colorado employees to report COVID-19 concerns at work

Union organizers created a complaint portal in the spring. They’ve gotten 1,000 responses, mostly from the metro.

Capitol Hill is hazy as wildfires burn elsewhere in the state. Aug. 19, 2020.

Capitol Hill is hazy as wildfires burn elsewhere in the state. Aug. 19, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
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This week, the AFL-CIO’s Colorado chapter released some details about a months-long look into workplace safety in the pandemic. The bottom line, said executive director Dennis Dougherty: Employees in Denver and across the state are working in unsafe conditions that they can’t control, and the state needs to set up some way for them to safely express their concerns.

Lawmakers began approaching Dougherty in the spring, he told us, asking if there was any data about workplace safety as the pandemic began to rage. Turns out there wasn’t.

“I was reluctant at that time to say we had any knowledge,” he said.

So Dougherty and his colleagues decided to figure out a way to quantify the dicey situations some workers were facing. In May, they launched a website to collect complaints. Dougherty said the organization spent about $1,000 on a digital marketing campaign for the portal, nowhere near what he thought would be needed to educate workers statewide. Seven months later, the tip line has received more than 1,000 complaints.

About 60 percent came from the metro area, from Federal Heights to Highlands Ranch. More complaints came from Denver than any other city by a large margin. A readout of the AFL-CIO’s data from a few days ago shows 291 complaints originating in Denver. Colorado Springs was next in line with 65.

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The form captured a variety of complaints. Concerns about social distancing topped the list, at about 12 percent of all responses. About 11 percent of respondents worried about how management dealt with sick employees.

In a press conference on Wednesday, workers voiced some of these concerns. A hairstylist from Englewood said her bosses pressured sick employees to work, even after some tested positive for COVID-19. An RTD bus operator complained about passengers packed tightly on his route.

Sandra Chavez, who’s worked at Denver-area Safeways for almost 40 years, said she opted to work night shifts because she worried about getting sick while customers were in her store. A cancer survivor with diabetes, she was especially concerned about contracting the virus. Generally, she said, management wasn’t doing enough.

“Mask-wearing for customers, they don’t enforce that. They don’t want to approach a customer,” she said. “So many of my coworkers are stressed out.”

Dougherty said most of the people who submitted complaints feared losing their jobs if employers found out they’d spoken out. Some came from concerned family members, who said their spouses and relatives were stuck between unsafe conditions and a paycheck.

While he won’t reveal many of these stories to the public, he has been sending each report to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). The state, he said, has been kicking this information down to local agencies. Nobody has taken significant action, he said. CDPHE has not returned our request for comment.

Tammy Vigil, spokesperson for Denver’s health department, said the city is taking action against businesses that don’t comply with local and state rules.

“We follow up on every complaint we receive regardless of who submits it,” she wrote in an email. “We have cited 241 workplaces and closed 18, so far.”

Vigil wasn’t sure how many complaints have been redirected to her department from CDPHE or how many workplace citations came from worker tip-offs.

While mask-wearing, capacity limits and social distancing in Denver is required by the state, Gov. Polis’ messaging on safety has largely leaned into “personal responsibility.” Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA under President Obama’s administration, said this framework ignores power imbalances between workers and employers.

“It’s one thing to ask an individual to protect their own safety,” she said during the virtual press conference. “But when an employee goes to the work place, they are no longer in control.”

That’s one reason why she and Dougherty say a state-run reporting system is necessary. Workers who find themselves at the wrong end of a power dynamic need somewhere to go.

Berkowitz noted a hotline system set up in November in New Jersey, which generated over 1,000 complaints and precipitated enforcement in just the first month of operation.

“Colorado should do what New Jersey did,” Berkowitz said. “We need you to investigate and inspect.”

She called the pandemic the “single biggest occupational health crisis” in her lifetime.

Dougherty said the dynamics pitting worker safety against their ability to pay their bills isn’t new. It’s just been brought to the fore, like so many other societal disparities.

“The stakes are higher with COVID,” he said.

And while he’s quick to say there are plenty of employers doing the “right thing,” he hopes the state will take action while there’s still a need for oversight.

“We think they can and need to do better,” he said. “There’s still time to take action and save lives.”

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