OSHA orders EQC to clean up its act

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Reported workplace hazards range from not enforcing face mask policy to employees joking about ‘Covid Corner’ in overcrowded high rollers area

Messages of togetherness on EQC signs may sound nice, but what is being reported going on inside the casino tells a different story. In fact, the EQC is being scrutinized for helping to spread COVID-19 rather than to stop it.

By John Weymer

jweymer@tacomaweekly.com

Before the new Emerald Queen Casino opened for business on June 8, the Tacoma Weekly had been publishing stories about the hazards of the casino doing business while the entire country remained in the grips of the coronavirus. Even though Pierce County had moved into Phase 2 of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start program just days before the new EQC opened, for people to gather inside of businesses was not guaranteed safe even at 50 percent capacity required by Phase 2 guidelines.

Then two things happened. First, tribal members began calling the Tacoma Weekly to express their uneasiness about how the casino was failing to adhere to health and safety requirements. Reports of lax enforcement for patrons and employees to wear face masks, no oversight of how many people were in the casino at one time, and fears among employees to report that they, or a coworker, were sick or showing symptoms were just some of these tribal members’ concerns.

Secondly, within a short time of the EQC opening, Pierce County positive COVID tests began to rise rapidly again and reached record numbers. Given that there is no other place open right now like the casino where people can be in an enclosed space for hours, it stands to reason that the EQC is a key source of these new infection numbers. 

Just this past weekend, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department reported 218 positive tests combined over Saturday and Sunday. In citing the source of the spike, the department stated: “We see an increase of cases or secondary transmissions from Fourth of July and all types in Phase 2 where people are not physical distancing and not wearing face coverings – social, business, civic, political, athletic, religious – any type of gathering.”

Now the Tacoma Weekly has learned that the feds are getting involved in what’s going on at the EQC. In a letter dated July 17, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) contacted EQC OSHA Coordinator Valerie Gray to inform her that the Seattle OSHA office received a notice of alleged workplace hazards at the casino. The full text of the letter is at the end of this article. 

What has been reported to the OSHA office is shocking to say the least. Among the complainant’s allegations:

  • 60-100 people on busy nights in approximately 100 square feet of space in “high limit” section of the casino. Employees jokingly call this area “Covid Corner.”
  • Patrons, while “required” to wear masks, are not asked to leave when refusing; no hand sanitizing is required, and stations are hard to find if available at all. Numerous employees have now been infected with coronavirus. 
  • A dealer was visibly ill with multiple symptoms of coronavirus. He was permitted to work the full 8 hours, coughing and sneezing while interacting with guests.
  • “I’ve had numerous sick players and been told to ‘stay quiet’ because they are playing large amounts of money.”

This is just a sampling of what has been reported to OSHA as outlined in their letter to Gray. The casino now must respond by this Friday, July 24, outlining what actions have been taken to bring the casino into compliance with health and safety measures. No response will result in an OSHA inspection, in addition to random inspections that OSHA performs to verify that corrective actions asserted by the employer have actually been taken.

Between shrinking crowds and these alleged workplace violations, whether the casino will have to close remains to be seen. If it does, the closure will have a direct impact on the tribal membership’s livelihoods in that any per-capita payments they are receiving will be further reduced. Since the tribal council had no plan in place for dealing with emergencies like the coronavirus, or any emergency at all that would seriously impact casino profits, members are left wondering about their income levels during the pandemic. 

The report made to OSHA indicates that there is movement among casino employees to hold casino management and the tribal council accountable for its decisions. The tribal law office should also be required to answer for how it is advising tribal council on matters related to opening the casino and how it is being run. Obviously, there are problems inside the casino that could lead to legal action on the part of employees since their health, and that of their family, is being put at serious risk. Tribal attorneys are not interested in speaking to the press, however, nor are tribal council members despite the Tacoma Weekly’s repeated attempts. 

See a related story at https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/coronavirus/article244353157.html.

Letter from OSHA to EQC, July 17

July 17, 2020

U.S. Department of Labor

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Washington Area Office

300 Fifth Ave., Suite 1260

Seattle, WA 98104

Valerie Gray

Emerald Queen Casino

2920 East R Street

Tacoma, WA 98404

RE: OSHA Complaint No. 1624099

Dear Ms. Gray:

On July 15, 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received a notice of alleged workplace hazard(s) at your worksite at:

2920 East R Street

Tacoma, WA 98404

We notified you by telephone of these alleged hazards on July 17, 2020. The specific nature of the alleged hazards is as follows:

60-100 people on busy nights in approximately 100 square feet of space in “high limit” section of the casino. Employees jokingly call this area “Covid Corner.” Patrons, while “required” to wear masks, are not asked to leave when refusing despite the casino’s “Zero Tolerance Policy.” Guests are in close proximity to both employees and each other. No hand sanitizing is required, stations are hard to find if available at all. Numerous employees have now been infected with coronavirus. 

On 7/13/2020 management in Table Games were made aware that a dealer was visibly ill with multiple symptoms of coronavirus. He had called out the previous day for flu like symptoms. He was permitted to work the full 8 hours, coughing and sneezing while interacting with guests.

On 7/14/2020, human resources made phone calls to numerous employees to inform them that NAME PROTECTED has coronavirus, you should get tested, you will not be permitted to return to work until you provide negative test results. This violates OSHA and HIPA requirements on confidentiality. Approximately 2 hours after these calls went out, the entire casino was aware of who was being asked to be tested and that NAME PROTECTED had contracted it.

I’ve had numerous sick players and been told to “stay quiet” because they are playing large amounts of money.

Employees, including cooks while working, are not wearing masks. Once in employee only areas, most employees remove their masks completely despite several being confirmed to have coronavirus. 

We have not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace, and we do not intend to conduct an inspection at this time. However, because allegations of violations and/or hazards have been made, we request that you immediately investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections or modifications. Please advise me in writing, no later than July 24, 2020, of the results of your investigation. You must provide supporting documentation of your findings. This includes any applicable measurements or monitoring results; photographs/video that you believe would be helpful; and a description of any corrective action you have taken or are in the process of taking, including documentation of the corrected condition. Please feel free to contact the office at (206) 757-6677 if you have any questions or concerns.

This letter is not a citation or a notification of proposed penalty which, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, may be issued only after an inspection or investigation of the workplace. It is our goal to assure that hazards are promptly identified and eliminated. Please take immediate corrective action where needed. If we do not receive a response from you by July 24, 2020, indicating that appropriate action has been taken or that no hazard exists and why, an OSHA inspection will be conducted. An inspection may include a review of the following: injury and illness records, hazard communication, personal protective equipment, emergency action or response, bloodborne pathogens, confined space entry, lockout tagout, and related safety and health issues.

Please also be aware that OSHA conducts random inspections to verify that corrective actions asserted by the employer have actually been taken.

If you need assistance in resolving the issues alleged in this complaint, you may contact the OSHA on-site consultation service. This program offers free and confidential assistance to small and medium-sized businesses in all states across the country, with priority given to high-hazard worksites. If necessary, a consultant will visit your workplace and assess the validity of the complaint item(s). In addition, you will be provided with methods of correcting the hazard, where applicable. To discuss or request these services, contact the consultation project in your respective state. The addresses and telephone numbers may be found by entering your state in the form at the OSHA Consultation Directory website: http://www.osha.gove/desp/smallbusiness/consult_directory.html.

You are requested to post a copy of this letter where it will be readily accessible for review by all of your employees, and to return a copy of the signed Certificate of Posting (Attachment A) to this office. In addition, you are requested to provide a copy of this letter and your response to a representative of any recognized employee union or safety committee that exist at your facility. Failure to do this may result in an on-site inspection. The complainant has been furnished a copy of this letter and will be advised of your response. Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act provides protection for employees against discrimination because of their involvement in protected safety and health activity. 

If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact our office. The contact information is listed on the first page of this document. Your interest in the safety and health of your employees is appreciated.

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