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Bookstore Fight Suggests COVID Workplace Safety Issues Are Growing Story

Will Bobrowski, shop steward for The Strand’s employee union, says a rush to re-open the storied bookstore left workers and customers vulnerable.
Will Bobrowski, shop steward for The Strand’s employee union, says a rush to re-open the storied bookstore left workers and customers vulnerable.
Peter Senzamici/THE CITY

When The Strand alerted employees it was reopening on June 22, managers sent re-hired workers a three-page safety plan ahead of their return to the iconic Greenwich Village bookstore.

“I looked at it and I said, well, they’re taking it seriously enough,” said employee Bill Magee, a member of UAW Local 2179.

But multiple employees said they quickly found that many of the safeguards listed in the plan — including social distancing, occupancy limits and plastic barriers — were not being enforced or properly implemented. Employees did say they were provided surgical masks.

“It’s kind of a joke,” Will Bobrowski, 40, an employee of The Strand for nearly 18 years and a shop steward for the store’s union, said of the plastic barriers. “You’re standing at a desk, people can approach you from the left side, the right side, and your one little piece acrylic in front of you — it doesn’t really do anything.”

While many of the smaller issues were quickly addressed, it took nearly five weeks and many hours of union members conducting inspections and petitioning management to finally get more robust plastic barriers installed at all staffed workstations, union leaders said.

The Strand experience underscores workplace safety challenges as the city slowly reopens — and also highlights differences between union and non-union workforces in dealing with management amid the pandemic, labor experts and leaders said.

Nearly 80% of New York’s workforce is non-union, leaving employees generally more reliant on government oversight of safety measures. But the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement says that, as of July 28, no fines have been issued to businesses for COVID-19 workplace safety violations.

James Odum, a spokesperson for The Strand, told THE CITY the store’s safety plan was crafted in accordance with guidelines set forth by the state Department of Health and that management made every effort to prep the store before reopening.

“Additional barriers have been ordered,” Odum told THE CITY last week, “but delays with our supplier have pushed back installation.” He said Strand managers had placed a new order with another company that quoted a faster delivery.

The Strand is owned by Nancy Bass Wyden, who is married to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and is the granddaughter of the shop’s founder. The shop recently found itself at the center of another union controversy over its rehiring practices.

Protection in Numbers?

Stephanie Luce, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, noted extensive research shows that unionized workers are much more likely to feel comfortable making formal complaints about safety without fear of retaliation. “We can only imagine what it’s like in other workplaces,” Luce told THE CITY.

Meanwhile, keeping workplaces safe is more reliant than ever on proactively enforced government guidelines, workplace safety experts say.

The Strand bookstore near Union Square, July 24, 2020.
The Strand bookstore near Union Square, July 24, 2020.
Peter Senzamici/THE CITY

“To stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, we must mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work,” said Debbie Berkowitz, the director of worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project.

“In non-union workplaces, with federal OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] missing in action and without the states or cities establishing protections — they are on their own,” she added. “[So] it is critical for New York State to implement protective regulations.”

At a re-opened Manhattan retail store of a major tech brand, an employee who requested anonymity told THE CITY that she and her non-unionized coworkers are afraid to go to work. Last week, two employees tested positive for COVID-19, she said.

“I think that has a lot of people really shaken up,” she added, noting that some coworkers have left early after suffering panic attacks on the job.

Bosses promised there would be a manager on the floor operating as a safety ombudsman, enforcing social distancing and occupancy limits, but the employee said that’s not the case.

While the store conducts more extensive cleanings, temperature checks and provides masks to customers, the employee said the lack of response to specific employee concerns compelled her to file a COVID-19 related complaint with the state Department of Labor.

“It’s difficult because it kind of feels like gaslighting,” she told THE CITY. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, but this can change, this will change,’ but then nothing does.”

When asked for details on the company’s pandemic safety plan, a spokesperson referred THE CITY to a corporate website that details some of the COVID-19 policies, like social distancing.

OSHA MIA?

The country’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, said it has called for OSHA, the U.S. Department of Labor arm responsible for federal workplace safety requirements, to set temporary emergency occupational health standards that reflect the dangers of working during the pandemic.

But a lawsuit trying to force the agency to do so was dismissed by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 11.

The suit sought mandatory standards for workplaces instead of the current OSHA guidelines, which are not specific to any industry, according to Mary Katherine Fletcher, safety and health specialist at the AFL-CIO.

“The guidelines don’t force employers to do anything,” said Fletcher. “They have no enforcement backbone.”

A U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson wrote that “OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that not only remain in place and enforceable, but also apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus,” stating that the agency’s current plan is similar to its response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

“As of July 20, OSHA has received 7,789 complaints related to the coronavirus, of which 5,951 have been closed,” wrote the department spokesperson.

OSHA has closed a total of 164 complaints from New York City, with nine of them classified as “formal,” which typically designates an in-person inspection, according to OSHA data as of July 5. Many of these complaints came from employees at municipal, federal or health care facilities, workplaces typically covered by a union.

Local Role

The state Department of Labor also polices workplace safety. Spokesperson Deanna Cohen told THE CITY the agency has “conducted over 27,000 inquiries statewide during this crisis, and we will continue to ensure employers are keeping workers safe.”

According to the department, over 90% of these complaints have been closed, most of them “resolved easily and voluntarily.” The remaining 10% of violations are still under review, the Department of Labor said.

Violations of the state guidelines can lead to fines of $1,000 to $10,000, and can be reported on the department’s web site. But enforcement falls to local governments.

The city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, meanwhile, has set up a “Worker Protection Hotline” to help employees during COVID-19. According to an agency spokesperson, the hotline has fielded more than 3,500 calls, resulting in 225 formal complaints.

The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement coordinates reopening inspections as part of New York’s phased return process. The office wrote to THE CITY that inspections are focused on educating workers, and are only conducted in response to complaints.

“Inspectors use a check-list to ensure that businesses and workplaces are complying with all necessary COVID-19 guidelines and regulations,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to THE CITY. “If someone’s repeatedly non-compliant, we handle the issue on a case-by-case basis.”

The spokesperson confirmed that no fines have been issued to any city businesses for COVID-19 violations.

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