AUSTIN, Texas — During the pandemic, a lot of people have been working from home. But not everyone had that luxury.
The KVUE Defenders found out some companies that still made people come in to work violated regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In some cases, OSHA fined those businesses after employees died.
“I think it's always concerning when workers are put at risk in terms of health and/or safety,” University of Texas at Austin professor Christopher King said.
King is the director of the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at UT Austin. He's not surprised by the data KVUE obtained from OSHA.
We found across the country, 484 businesses received OSHA violations related to COVID-19. That's $6,344,827. Twenty-four of those businesses are in Texas, with fines amounting to $200,427. KVUE found four of those businesses were located in the greater Austin area.
“I think they really need to step back and think ask themselves the question, 'Am I providing a safe and healthy environment for my workforce?'” King said.
First, we look at West Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which is a nursing home in South Austin. Last fall, the KVUE Defenders uncovered a lack of infectious disease controls at that facility, cited by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. OSHA gave the facility an initial penalty of $11,567.
Federal records show West Oaks received a fine because an "employee was exposed to COVID-19. The employee later died from pneumonia caused by the COVID-19."
Last fall, the KVUE Defenders uncovered Maurice Dotson, a certified nursing assistant at West Oaks, died after getting COVID-19. He was thought to be the first health care worker to die of the coronavirus in Austin.
“He was just, like I said, a great individual where you would gravitate to him,” Capital Metro bus operator Darrell Sorrells said. “And he wasn’t shy; he was just very outgoing.”
A spokesperson from West Oaks declined an interview, but sent us this statement in response:
"Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our patients and staff. We are currently contesting the report you are referring to and due to pending litigation, we are unable to provide answers to your questions at this time."
That litigation involves a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Dotson's family, in which West Oaks denies wrongdoing.
Luling Nursing Operations is another nursing home with a similar violation. OSHA records show two employees "were providing skilled nursing services to nursing home residents. They contracted the COVID-19. Employee #1 and Employee #2 later died from complications from the virus." That facility also faced an initial penalty of $11,567.
Another facility in Luling had COVID-19-related OSHA violations – this one at Luling Care Center. That facility also received an initial penalty of $11,567. Federal records show the facility violated recording criteria and didn't report the death of an employee within eight hours.
A spokesperson for both Luling facilities sent us the following statement:
“The Luling facilities signed settlement agreements with OSHA regarding the incidents in question from mid-2020 in which no fault was admitted. We have always prioritized the health and safety of everyone in our facilities throughout this pandemic and will continue to do so into the future.”
Finally, OSHA hit Altman Specialty Plants, a wholesale nursery in Giddings with an initial violation of $1,928. That facility also violated recording criteria, according to OSHA records.
A spokesperson for the company sent us this statement in response:
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Altman Plants has diligently followed the guidance and protocols from the CDC and OSHA to protect our employees and maintain the safety of our workplaces. Early in the COVID pandemic, Altman Plants received an OSHA citation for what was determined to be administrative paperwork issues involving listing employees who contracted COVID-19 on our OSHA 300 log. We made these changes immediately as requested by OSHA. We have continued to be extremely diligent in our approach to our work environment as it relates to employee safety.”
King said companies with OSHA violations related to COVID-19 should make changes, or they could take a hit to their business.
“I think you're seeing consumers who are much more intelligent and savvy about these issues,” King said. “So, you know, if they want to keep their consumer base happy, they'll make their workers safe and healthy as well. And I think that's a good thing.”
We asked for interviews with all the local companies we highlighted, but no one agreed to speak on camera.
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