2 Alaska seafood processing plants faced big fines for alleged COVID-19 workplace safety violations, then the Department of Labor commissioner stepped in
A federal agency will now investigate a complaint from five state officers whether the commissioner failed in her duties
JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s Labor Department commissioner quashed fines that could have been issued against two Alaska seafood processors for allegedly failing to protect their employees from hazards associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Copper River Seafoods, Inc. saw its Anchorage plant hit with a COVID-19 outbreak in July 2020. That outbreak quickly grew to over 90 employees.
During the outbreak, 19 employees reported health and safety concerns at the plant to the Department of Health and Social Services. The department informed the Alaska Occupational Health and Safety section which is charge of investigating potential workplace health and safety issues.
An inspection took place in early August.
Investigators wrote a scathing report. They alleged that the seafood processor had:
- Failed to effectively screen workers for known symptoms of COVID-19.
- Failed to effectively implement social distancing at the slime line and at break areas.
- Failed to effectively prevent sick and symptomatic workers from entering the facility.
- Failed to provide physical barriers for employees when they could not socially distance.
The investigators recommended that a willful general duty clause violation be issued against Copper River Seafoods, Inc., the most serious fine that can be issued against an employer. That was because they say minimal changes were made at the plant two weeks after the outbreak.
They said that there was little to no hand sanitizer available, employees had to buy their own masks and the only change investigators allege they saw was that surfaces had been cleaned.
Investigators also said that the seafood processor allowed five employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work while the inspection was going on when they should have been quarantining.
Chris LaCroix, the compliance manager for Copper River Seafoods, Inc., returned a call made by Alaska’s News Source on Tuesday evening, claiming this was the first he had heard about the officers’ COVID-19 complaints.
He said that he had not gotten the impression that the inspectors were going to make serious allegations about the processor after the inspection.
Midway through the call, LeCroix claimed he didn’t know he was talking to a reporter and said he could not speak on behalf of the company. He directed further questions to a spokesperson for the processor who did not immediately make themselves available for comment.
On Friday, Copper River Seafoods, Inc. released a public statement after multiple news outlets in the state reported on the allegations from investigators.
“CRS values the health and safety of its employees above all else. CRS is motivated to reduce COVID-19 exposure to keep employees healthy, working and plants operating safely. Enormous challenges existed last season due to the pandemic. As the outbreak in Anchorage pushed higher, our challenges increased accordingly,” the statement read, in part.
The company emphasized that to date, it has not been cited or charged for anything associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reiterated that the company was not aware of the Department of Labor deliberations involving them until news reports were published.
Proposed citations denied
An aggregate of different violations could have seen Copper River Seafoods, Inc. facing fines worth approximately $450,000. Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development stopped that process.
Ledbetter wrote a letter to Joseph Knowles, a deputy director of labor standards, on Jan. 18. saying that the inspectors’ claims were not “adequately supported by the documentation provided.”
The proposed citations against Copper River Seafoods, Inc. were denied by the commissioner.
“It is my goal that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development foster working relationships with the regulated community which emphasize the important role of consultation, and that we continue to implement strategies that lead to safer working conditions and less on strictly punitive results,” Ledbetter added in a leaked memo.
Knowles said by phone on Wednesday that there had been a mistake with how the information had been presented to Ledbetter. Only a health report had been sent to the commissioner, and not a second safety report.
Knowles had advocated for the willful general duty clause violation to be issued against Copper River Seafoods, Inc., but said the mistake in presenting the reports had led to a learning process for the department.
In an email sent to Alaska’s News Source, Ledbetter wrote that “the use of a Willful General Duty citation for COVID and/or airborne illness in the workplace is unprecedented in Alaska. According to the Department of Law, there has only been one citation of this nature issued in the entire country.”
Across the country, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has faced widespread criticism for its small fines and lax enforcement while workers died or became sick during the pandemic.
Now, the complaint against Copper River Seafoods, Inc. is closed. No citations will be issued, and the processor has no requirement to change what inspectors identified as hazardous conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ledbetter declined to answer any further questions from Alaska’s News Source.
‘Unprecedented’ actions by the commissioner
A former chief enforcement officer at AKOSH says that Ledbetter’s actions to block citations against Copper River Seafoods, Inc. are unprecedented.
John Stallone worked at the Alaska Labor Department for 10 years, including four as chief enforcement officer, before retiring in 2006. He said there are formal appeals processes when citations are issued that can see them reduced or dropped all together.
He claimed that Ledbetter’s actions to stop the enforcement process was unprecedented and effectively allowed a six-month statute of limitations on alleged workplace safety violations to run out.
“I’ve just never experienced anything like this before,” Stallone said.
Now, the Alaska Legislature is set to investigate. Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said the House Labor and Commerce Department will study if Ledbetter broke state law by denying citations against the seafood processor.
“Based on what I’ve heard from people who’ve worked in the department for decades, that has literally never happened before,” Fields said.
The state took control of most workplace health and safety monitoring in 1984. One concern for Fields is that OSHA could take away the state’s authority or demand serious changes.
He pointed to another Juneau-based seafood processor that faced a large fine for allegations about COVID-19 workplace safety.
Alaska Glacier Seafoods, Inc. had a COVID-19 outbreak in July 2020.
An inspection in August by AKOSH saw calls for a fine to be issued up to $136,532 against the plant for another willful violation of the general duty clause. Ledbetter denied that request on Feb. 18., citing again that only one of those fines has been issued against a U.S. employer during the pandemic.
She wrote to Knowles that a smaller fine could be issued, but Alaska lacked clear COVID-19 rules at the time. Without specific mandates, the seafood processor effectively could not be fined, Ledbetter wrote.
Fields, a former Labor Department employee, said that is not correct. The federal general duty clause is deliberately vague, so when there aren’t clear standards for workplace safety, employees are still protected from “recognized hazards” like COVID-19, he said.
The investigation into Alaska Glacier Seafoods, Inc. is still officially open until at least this weekend. The final report from the Labor Department is not available.
Kristie Erickson, a manager at the processor, knew about the inspection but said she was not aware that there were serious fines being considered by the Labor Department about COVID-19 standards.
She said that the processor had tried to keep everyone safe by isolating workers and getting them tested as quickly as possible. Barriers could not to be installed on the slime line, she added.
“We did the best that we could with this COVID outbreak,” Erickson said.
‘We cannot require the employer to abate these hazards’
The complaint will be investigated by OSHA, according to a letter written on Feb. 3. The claims that Ledbetter should have recused herself in the Copper River Seafoods, Inc. case will not be investigated.
A central theme of the officers’ complaint is that their authority as an enforcement agency has been undermined by Ledbetter’s decisions to deny the citations and to stop the process moving forward.
They are concerned that there is now nothing to compel changes at Copper River Seafoods, Inc. during the pandemic.
“We cannot require the employer to abate these hazards,” the five officers said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include part of a statement released by Copper River Seafoods, Inc. in response to news reports on the allegations against it.
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