As more and more restaurants begin to reopen during the pandemic, the restaurant workers heading into those kitchens and dining rooms are taking a risk: Going to any workplace right now — especially one that interacts with the public — means interacting with more people who could be carrying COVID-19.
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Kate Brown has instituted a number of safety guidelines: Both customers and staff must wear masks while inside restaurants, and restaurants need to keep tables six feet apart and eliminate self-service like buffets and salad bars. However, some restaurants and many food businesses still become the sites of coronavirus outbreaks.
In multiple press conferences, Gov. Brown has said that it is up to business owners to enforce these safety guidelines — including ones involving the public, like the recent face covering mandate. “Our law enforcement have a number of things to do, ensuring people are safe is one of them,” Brown said in a July 1 press conference. “We’re not asking businesses to call the police.”
So what does a restaurant worker do when faced with a potential health risk, violating state guidelines? What do they do when their employer tells them not to enforce the face covering mandate? Eater Portland spoke with Aaron Corvin, a spokesperson from Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, also known as OSHA, to talk through the responsibilities of restaurant owners and how a worker — or customer — can report violations of safety protocols.
What is the responsibility of restaurant owners?
According to a recent Willamette Week story, multiple complaints filed to OSHA reported that employers were telling employees not to enforce mask-wearing requirements. “Ultimately, it’s the job of employers to protect the health and safety of their workers,” Corvin says. “Workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace.” In other words, business owners must try to keep employees safe by enforcing these safety guidelines, which includes enforcing customer mask requirements. OSHA has created best practices for businesses to help enforce these sorts of guidelines, which includes things like providing inexpensive masks at the door, keeping greeters at the front door to address mask-wearing before entering the business, and providing face shields that can be sanitized between uses for those who cannot wear a face mask but can use a face shield.
If things escalate — for instance, when someone begins to create a public disturbance or trespass — a restaurant can handle that action the way they normally would, including traditional de-escalation practices. OSHA provides courses in preventing and responding to workplace violence, as well as COVID-19-specific safety training; there are also trainings available through organizations like the Crisis Prevention Institute. Employers looking for consultation can call (503) 229-6193.
How do I report an unsafe workplace?
At any time, if a restaurant or bar worker feels like their workplace is unsafe, that employee can file a complaint with OSHA; that, of course, includes COVID-related safety hazards or workplace violations. These complaint forms are available in English and Spanish, and employees can file these complaints confidentially. Customers can also file these complaints; for those who’d prefer to call, the local Portland metro field office number is (503) 229-5910.
OSHA will then begin to evaluate these complaints, calling businesses and evaluating their responses and knowledge of health and safety guidelines. “The COVID-19 inspections occur with businesses who refuse to engage, or those we think possibly misled us,” Corvin says. “Depending on the inspection results, we can institute penalties.” Those penalties often refer to fines, which range from $100 to more than $126,000. OSHA can also shut a restaurant down until it complies with health and safety guidelines. However, according to OSHA’s website, “employees can request an on-site inspection if they are not satisfied with the inquiry.”
What if my boss retaliates?
Business owners who retaliate based on this style of whistleblowing — by cutting someone’s shifts, blacklisting, demoting, etc. — are breaking the law; those employees can file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Those employees can also call 971-673-0764 (for English) or 971-673-2818 (en Español).
Update July 14, 2020, 1:05 p.m.
This story was updated to include details regarding OSHA penalties.
• Oregon Occupational Safety & Health [Official]
• Report a hazard to OSHA [Official]
• File a complaint with BOLI [Official]
• OSHA field office contact information [Official]
• Best practices for business owners [Official]
• Gov. Kate Brown Says Restaurant Workers Are Expected to Enforce Oregon’s Mask-Wearing Mandate [EPDX]
• Oregonians Will Be Required to Wear Masks in Bars and Restaurants Statewide [EPDX]
• The Majority of Oregon’s Workplace-Related COVID-19 Outbreaks Are at Food Businesses [EPDX]