Centralia businesses fined more than a quarter of a million dollars collectively after 250 workers contract COVID-19 in the same warehouse
TUMWATER — When workers housed in Thurston County hotels and employed at a Lewis County distribution center got sick with COVID-19, they walked to the hospital for help and feared they could lose their jobs if they went home sick.
At least one worker was told to report to work because they had not tested positive for COVID-19 when in fact they had. And, initially no one notified workers that they’d been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace.
The Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) opened several inspections after the agency received a referral from the Thurston County Health Department. As a result, three businesses with employees working at that location — United Natural Foods Inc., Capstone Logistics LLC, and Prime 360 — are facing more than $285,000 in overall fines for knowingly putting their workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Six other businesses in the warehouse were cited for less serious violations including not having COVID-19 plans and not keeping proper records.
At the three companies facing significant fines, inspections revealed a lack of basic safety procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19. L&I also found a disregard for the rights of workers to information about their health and exposure to infection. Approximately one in four employees working in the warehouse between July 7 and Oct. 5, 2021 tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 253 workers who tested positive, five were hospitalized.
“Our investigation uncovered a widespread outbreak that put employees, their families, and their communities across 10 counties at risk for COVID-19,” Joel Sacks, L&I director. “The actions these companies took or failed to take undoubtedly made it worse—contributing to faster and broader spread of the virus in the workplace.”
United Natural Foods, Inc.
United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) owns and operates the million-square-foot food supply warehouse that serves hundreds of regional grocery stores and military operations. There are about a thousand employees at the location; 600 work directly for the company, and the rest are contract workers.
After the initial investigation in July made the extent of the outbreak clear, United Natural Foods told officials that they voluntarily closed most operations, committing to using minimal required staffing. However, further investigation from Lewis County Public Health and Social Services, the Washington State Department of Health and L&I found that they continued to fulfill shipments from the site with their general workforce.
United Foods also initially failed to provide contact information for employees who had tested positive through onsite testing, claimed not to know who some employees worked for, and allowed employees to work at the facility while the company knew or should have known that they tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, L&I issued an Order of Immediate Restraint (OIR) to ensure safety measures were in place before the facility re-opened.
UNFI was cited for allowing workers with COVID-19 into the workplace and for failure to report hospitalizations, verify worker vaccination status, and enforce mask use. Total fines are $140,000 and the company will be subject to increased scrutiny from L&I as part of the severe violator program.
Capstone Logistics LLC
About 200 employees at the distribution center work for Capstone Logistics LLC, as order selectors who pull product from inside the warehouse for outgoing shipments. Fifty-four of Capstone’s employees tested positive for COVID-19. One was hospitalized.
In one instance, a worker was told he had not tested positive for COVID-19 by his supervisor and to go to work when he actually had tested positive. Even after committing to social distancing and other safety measures in vans used to transport workers to the building, Capstone loaded crowded vans with employees without screening for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms or requiring masks.
Capstone was cited with a willful serious violation for not verifying worker vaccination status, not enforcing mask use on vehicles or in the workplace, and for allowing workers with COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus in the workplace. They were also cited for not reporting a hospitalization, and other non-COVID related violations. Total fines are $75,400 and the company is now identified by L&I as a severe violator.
About two dozen people work for Prime 360 in the distribution warehouse where their main job is to empty returning trailers of unsorted pallets and packaging scraps and sort the pallets for future use. Four Prime 360 workers tested positive for COVID-19.
The inspection made clear that Prime 360’s on-site manager showed intentional disregard for the health and safety of their workers. Motivated by a personal disagreement with statewide health and safety rules, the manager chose not to enforce them. Instead, he told L&I that it was his policy to assume any employee not wearing a mask was vaccinated, and that he therefore did not need to check their status or enforce the wearing of masks. The business received a willful serious violation and was fined $70,000.
Capstone and Prime 360 have appealed the citations and fines. The deadline for United Foods to appeal is today. Money from fines is placed in the workers compensation supplemental pension fund, helping injured workers and families of those who have died on the job.
Dina Lorraine, L&I Public Affairs, 360-972-4868.