Colorado organization workers pushing for stronger workplace safety enforcement amid pandemic

Posted at 2:45 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 16:45:44-05

DENVER — Frontline workers with safety concerns are stepping out of the shadows to share their stories in hopes of change.

Dennis Dougherty, the executive director of the Colorado American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), says they have collected more than 1,000 workplace complaints from employees since May. The organization represents more than 130,000 workers in Colorado.

"Everything ranging from no hand sanitizer, no masks, to employees being terminated for raising concerns in the workplace about their safety and the safety of their co-workers and customers," Dougherty said.

Mary Harmon, a nurse, has dedicated 31 years of her life to caring for patients and believes it's how she contracted COVID-19. She claims her employer, a Denver hospice company, failed to make safety a priority.

"Healthcare providers are not as safe as people think," Harmon said. "We did not have proper PPE and our supplies were limited and we were asked to reuse PPE."

She says she voiced her concerns and finally quit in December after more than a year with the company.

"Nothing was being heard," Harmon said.

She's among hundreds of employees in various industries, from grocery store workers to hairstylists and small business clerks, worried about their safety. Harmon filed a complaint with the Colorado AFL-CIO. She says she didn't know where else to turn for help.

The organization and workers are calling on Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) to step up and do more to protect employees.

"We need timely investigations into the complaints at the state level, we need enforcement on business violations, and we need regular reports detailing a number of complaints, the number of complaints investigated, and the outcomes and the actions taken," Dougherty said.

The organization is proposing the implementation of a hotline and an online form for workers to file complaints to help streamline the process.

"Saving even one worker from having to go in and decide between an unsafe worksite and a paycheck," Dougherty said.

This summer, Gov. Polis signed a bill prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raised workplace concerns.

Dougherty says despite the bill, many workers continue to fear retaliation.

Some local health departments have online forms for workers or residents to file complaints, but Dougherty worries it's not enough.

"Right now, there are varying degrees of how seriously they take the complaints depending on the county, and also their capacity and ability to actually investigate the complaints and then enforce on businesses," Dougherty said.

CDPHE has the authority to issue cease and desist orders. They can also temporarily suspend business licenses if the business is not in compliance with state laws. But CDC guidelines are not laws. The guidelines are recommendations.

A spokesperson with CDPHE says a "vast majority" of businesses in recent field surveys by the Colorado Department of Revenue showed businesses are following COVID-19 protocols. Out of 204 inspections, CDOR found two businesses in "dangerous conditions." It's unclear if employees filed complaints at the businesses inspected.

On Tuesday, Gov. Polis penned a letter to President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, calling for stronger workplace safety enforcement and inspections from OSHA.