Labor, Civil Rights Groups’ Lawsuit Claims Iowa Failed to Protect Workers

By | November 16, 2020

Eight Iowa labor and civil rights groups have filed a federal complaint alleging the state has failed to protect workers in meatpacking, dairy, construction, transportation, health care facilities, nursing homes and other industries.

The complaint filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Kansas City seeks a full investigation and corrective action by the federal government. While it cites several examples of alleged failure of Iowa OSHA to do on-site inspections or investigate unsafe conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic, the groups say Iowa work safety issues go beyond coronavirus problems.

Iowa is one of 22 states with state agency enforcement of federal work safety regulations, but the federal government can step in when a state isn’t enforcing laws in a way that is at least as effective as the federal OSHA agency in protecting worker health and safety, said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

“Workers are dying, and Iowa OSHA is doing very little to prevent that. We’re asking federal OSHA to step in and force change to protect Iowans where the state has failed to do so,” she said.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is supportive of the work Iowa OSHA has done and “believes any federal review would find Iowa OSHA has followed all guidance to protect Iowa workers throughout this pandemic,” said spokesman Pat Garrett.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Division of Labor, which oversees Iowa OSHA, said the agency “would welcome” the federal investigation.

“Iowa OSHA will fully cooperate with federal investigative authorities, and will respond to any findings and/or recommendations at the proper time,” said Mary Montgomery.

The complaint was filed by the ACLU of Iowa, American Friends Service Committee Iowa, Forward Latino, the Iowa AFL-CIO, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors, the Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens, the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, and the Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting.

The groups allege that Iowa OSHA officials failed to respond adequately to worker safety complaints as the coronavirus pandemic struck Iowa in the spring by not conducting onsite inspections in response to worker complaints.

As of Oct. 4, workers had filed 148 COVID-19 related complaints with Iowa OSHA that detailed dangerous working conditions; 36 of those were formal complaints. Only five of those complaints (three formal and two informal) resulted in an inspection. All the others were closed with no inspection at all, the groups said.

Iowa OSHA conducted seven other on-site inspections of meatpacking plants, but those came only after a state lawmaker or media reports sounded the alarm publicly about large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the groups. Those inspections also happened after Iowa OSHA had failed to respond to earlier complaints, the groups said.

Even now, Iowa OSHA has not issued a single safety citation after one of its rare on-site inspections, the groups say. Instead, it issued just a single citation — for a record-keeping violation.

The groups said those hardest-hit by COVID-19 in the workplace have been minorities, including immigrants, Black and Latino Iowans.

Iowa has had 10 deaths among meatpacking plant workers and Nebraska has had 22, said Joe Henry, political director of Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens.

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