Worker safety takes center stage in pandemic

By: - May 22, 2020 7:00 am
Workers wearing face masks (By cotton bro via Pexels) in front of a fake Mona Lisa wearing a face masks all dressed in white

Workers wearing face masks (By cotton bro via Pexels)

COVID-19 infections continue to dog workplaces, challenging local and state health officials while sickening employees.

In Kenosha, an unconfirmed number of infections among workers at Amazon’s two facilities located northwest of the city’s downtown have vexed the county health agency.

And on Thursday, a coalition of advocacy groups urged Wisconsin lawmakers to adopt a series of measures to protect workers from the novel coronavirus following last week’s abrupt end to the state Safer at Home order.

The Kenosha County Division of Health “has struggled to receive coordinated cooperation from Amazon regarding the handling of COVID-19 cases within the company’s Kenosha campus,” said Dr. Jen Freiheit, the county’s health officer, in a statement Thursday.

Amazon’s two facilities are separately managed and structured, “which makes it difficult to coordinate a full outbreak picture with the organization as a whole,” Freiheit stated. Tracking the illness is further complicated by the fact that many employees lived in Illinois or have gotten tested there, or both. The states report public health data differently, she added, which has prevented the county from accurately documenting cases or telling employees who may have been exposed to workers carrying the virus.

In the absence of official estimates, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, working from text messages and other communications, calculated that at least 32 Amazon employees have been infected by the virus.

Freiheit stated that the county, potentially aided by the Wisconsin National Guard, was ready to offer testing for all Amazon employees at the company’s Kenosha operations.

“Without being in the facility, we remain unaware of whether employees have proper face coverings, and whether they are properly distanced from one another,” Freiheit stated.

The state Department of Health Services (DHS) stands ready to assist in investigating local outbreaks, including in workplaces, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, at a media briefing on Thursday.


“In general, we’re involved with all such public health investigations as individual cases and clusters of cases in workplaces or long-term care facilities are reported to us,” Westergaard explained. “If they are clustered in the workplace, we recognize that as an outbreak, we post it as a public health investigation and we make our team available for support.”

Letter to lawmakers

Worker safety is central to a letter that Kids Forward and a coalition of more than two dozen advocacy groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO to 9-to-5: The National Association for Working Women and Worker Justice Wisconsin, sent to state legislators on Thursday, urging them to reinstate measures that would protect the state from a new round of COVID-19 infections.

By throwing out the state Safer at Home order, the state Supreme Court “imperiled our state’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” the Kids Forward letter states.

The Kids Forward letter called on lawmakers to embrace “a comprehensive, evidence-based state response to the pandemic” to avoid “further and irreparable harm, especially for front-line health care workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of color who have already suffered disproportionately because of the pandemic.”

Alluding to the Legislature’s use of remote meetings during the time of the Safer at Home order, as well as the court’s use of online meeting technology to hold arguments and later discuss the lawsuit against the order, the letter states: “Like the legislators who filed the litigation and the state Supreme Court justices who decided the case, Wisconsin workers should not be forced to return to workplaces if that would put their health and their lives at risk, and thereby increase risks for all Wisconsinites.”

Before lawmakers can expect people to return to work, the letter states, they should set standards for relaxing physical distancing rules and restoring the rules if infections increase; ensure everyone can get tested for the infection at no charge; let everyone working outside the home have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and give employers incentives to let everyone work at home who can; implement policies allowing workers to stay home if workplaces don’t meet health and safety standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; and protect workers from being denied unemployment compensation if they can’t return to work because they can’t find child care due to COVID-19 or because they or family members are ill with or at risk for the illness.

Failing to implement those safety measures, the letter states, could lead to a later spike in cases that would undermine whatever benefits returning to work too soon provide.

In suing to block Gov. Tony Evers and DHS from extending the Safer at Home order past its original April 24 expiration date, Republican legislative leaders argued that they should have a part in working out the state’s policies to protect residents from the pandemic. 

Their lawsuit maintained — and the court’s 4-3 majority affirmed — that while state law authorizes health “orders” to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and makes no mention of legislative approval, such orders must be treated as “rules” that require legislative involvement.

After the ruling, the Evers administration submitted a scope statement for a new rule to replace the order, but the legislators rejected the statement and, according to Evers, said they would rely on local health departments to take charge of the matter. The governor has said they also told him they didn’t want any state restrictions.

The letter urges lawmakers to do more. 

“Now the Legislature must shoulder the burden that they asked for and take responsibility for the millions of people, hundreds of thousands of small businesses, and our health care systems,” the letter concludes, “all of which are more vulnerable now than they were before this court ruling.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.