At least 59 workers have died of COVID-19 after potentially being exposed on the job, according to a Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health report out Thursday.
Of the 59 dead whose jobs could be identified, the vast majority were in health care, along with a handful of transportation workers, retail and grocery employees, and police officers.
Medical professionals have had the most infections, with 6,847 positive tests, followed by restaurant and grocery workers, at 1,930, and administrative and office support employees, at 1,092.
These numbers, gathered from the state, unions, nursing homes, federal investigations, news stories, and obituaries, are likely a “gross undercount,” the agency said, because more than two-thirds of test results don’t include job details — critical data that could help protect workers and slow the spread of the deadly virus. The state didn’t require occupations to be included in test results until July.
In all, 87,000 Massachusetts working-age residents tested positive for COVID-19 between March 10 and July 31, and 1,349 died.
Other states have far more robust occupation-related data collection, including Louisiana, whose contact-tracing reports name businesses or other facilities where outbreaks occur. Vermont and Colorado post the industries and occupations with the most infections.
Collecting more job-related data from Massachusetts residents, including the industry they work in and the name of their employer, would allow public health officials to better pinpoint outbreaks, said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, MassCOSH’s executive director. Now, if several people get sick who work at the same facility but live in different towns, local health officials may not make the connection.
“This is truly a worker health and safety crisis of proportions we’ve never seen,” she said.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said it was working to improve data collection, including occupation information, in order to improve the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19.
MassCOSH is also pushing for greater worker safety regulations and enforcement. More than 300 workers reported to the attorney general’s office that employers weren’t requiring symptomatic employees to stay home, according to the report; in addition, 377 reported they had experienced COVID-related retaliation from their employers.
“We are hearing multiple, multiple stories all the time of workers who are fired for testing positive, of workers who are fired for using the sick time that they are supposed to be able to use,” Sugerman-Brozan said. "The fear of retaliation is really driving people to hide symptoms, to hide positive cases because they want to keep their jobs. "
The MassCOSH report dives deep into the story of Yok Yen Lee the 69-year-old Walmart worker in Quincy who died from COVID-19 on May 3. A month earlier, a positive test of one of Lee’s co-workers was reported to the Quincy Health Department, the agency found, leading to an outbreak of at least 29 workers and family members, But the store wasn’t forthcoming about the outbreak, according to Lee’s daughter, who spoke to MassCOSH for the report, allegedly telling employees that their sick co-workers were on vacation. When Lee got sick, she had run out of sick time, and managers told her to use vacation time, though her request for time off wasn’t approved until she was already in the hospital.
Quincy public health nurses had to call the store three times to do contact tracing and said managers were uncooperative, according to news reports cited in the MassCOSH report. The store was eventually shut down, one of five Walmarts in the state that closed temporarily due to COVID-19 outbreaks, including a store in Worcester where 81 employees tested positive.
A Walmart spokesman said the company had not seen the MassCOSH report but takes the allegations seriously, noting, “Our hearts go out to the friends and loved ones of Yok Yen Lee." He also forwarded a letter sent to Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Massachusetts politicians in May that stated, “It may be impossible to track the source of anyone’s infection, especially in some of these communities that have felt the devastating impact of the virus.”
More than 4,500 complaints about unsafe working conditions related to COVID-19 in Massachusetts have been made to the attorney general’s office, the state Department of Labor Standards, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, MassCOSH found. Complaints made directly to local boards of health — likely the biggest source — weren’t included because the data isn’t public or compiled in one place. When violations are found, businesses are allowed to stay open or reopen by “self-certifying” that they meet guidelines, with no third-party inspections required, the report notes.
Of the 689 worker complaints in the state made to OSHA as of Aug. 23, only one workplace was cited for safety violations, MassCOSH found.
“The department is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end,” a Department of Labor spokesman wrote. “The agency investigates all complaints. OSHA inspectors will not close a case if they have identified any potential citations. OSHA inspections alone have helped to ensure more than 604,000 workers are protected.”
MassCOSH is also supporting a bill that would make all front-line employees who test positive for COVID-19 during the state of emergency automatically eligible for workers' compensation insurance and pushing for the state’s COVID-19 safety regulations to apply to all workers, including those in schools, grocery stores, and health care who are currently exempt.
Creating stronger protections is especially important to protect people of color, who make up a disproportionate share of essential workers and are getting infected at high rates, the report notes. Latinos make up 12 percent of the state population but account for more than 22 percent of positive cases, according to state data, while Black residents make up about 7 percent of the population but 9.6 percent of positive cases.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story included outdated information from the MassCOSH report on positive COVID-19 test rates of Black and Latino people.