Workplace complaints related to COVID-19 piling up against Memphis area employers

Updated: May. 11, 2020 at 6:50 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As the Mid-South reopens, staying safe at work is a top priority. But thousands of people across the country have filed complaints, accusing their employers of not doing enough to protect them from COVID-19.

Since March, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) says they've processed 333 complaints related to COVID-19.

Chris Cannon, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said 319 of these complaints have been closed.

Cannon said 109 of the complaints were filed in March and 224 were filed in April.

WMC Action News 5 obtained data from TOSHA's federal counterpart, OSHA, which highlights a small portion of those complaints against at least 18 Memphis area employers.

We heard back from two of them: Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and BioLife Plasma Services.

One complaint said housekeepers at Methodist's University Hospital weren't told they were cleaning rooms where COVID-19 patients had been treated and weren't given appropriate PPE.

Another said nurses at Methodist Germantown weren't allowed to wear masks.

A senior communications specialist for Methodist, Rachel Powers Doyle, sent the following statement to Action News 5 about the complaints filed against the healthcare system:

"The health and safety of our patients, staff and providers is a top priority for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. We follow all best practices based on CDC and other regulatory guidelines including: displaying signage outside every COVID-19 patient room, requiring staff to wear masks at all times, and providing extensive training on PPE. We provided feedback on these issues to TOSHA and they consider them closed."

WMC Action News 5 found another complaint filed with OSHA, this time against BioLife Plasma Services.

The complaint alleged that employees with low-grade fevers continued to show up to work and that social distancing wasn’t being practiced.

In response to WMC's request, Julia Ellwanger, a senior communications spokesperson with BioLife Plasma Services' parent company, Takeda, sent the following statement:

"Safety is our absolute priority. BioLife Plasma Services promptly investigated the complaints reported to OSHA and responded. OSHA has confirmed our responses were sufficient and closed the case.

"BioLife collection centers follow strict safety protocol at all times that is intended for the protection of our employees and donors, including wearing protective equipment, performing rigorous cleaning procedures and frequent hand washing. And we have carefully monitored and taken actions in line with the evolving public health guidance. In the early days of the pandemic staff at all of our centers received extra training on additional safety measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, including social distancing guidelines such as adding space between stations and beds, in the waiting rooms and seating and adjusting appointment schedules. As public health guidance has evolved, our protocols have too, adding more rigorous screening processes to reduce the risk of transmission within our sites. Both donors and employees are required to wear masks, receive temperature pre-screenings and we have advised our employees that if they feel they may pose a risk to others, they should remain home.

"The collection of plasma is necessary for producing plasma-derived therapies that are life-saving or life-sustaining for patients. We are taking all possible precautionary measures to make our centers safe for our employees and donors, and urgently depend on people to donate."

To search for and read through OSHA complaints filed against other Mid-South companies and closed (as of May 4), visit OSHA's COVID-19 complaint data database.

Memphis employment attorney Alan Crone says companies must follow OSHA guidelines and local regulations related to COVID-19.

"It's smart business for companies to make sure that they have articulated for their workforce the safety measures they have in place," said Crone.

If they don't, he advises employees to contact the department of labor or code enforcement.

"Hopefully that will educate the company on what they should be doing," said Crone.

But he says everyone has a role to play.

“It’s not just up to the employees to make the workplace safe, it’s also up to the customers and the employees, everybody should be involved in this,” said Crone.

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