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LA County OKs Coronavirus ‘Health Councils’ to Keep Watch on Worker Safety

COVID-19 outbreaks in such sites as Los Angeles Apparel underpinned the Board of Supervisors' efforts to include unions and business interests in a plan to ensure worker safety

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Xochitl Cobarruvias with US Steel Workers Union demonstrates at a drive-by rally in front of the LA County Hall of Administration Tuesday, July 21, 2020., (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, July 21, approved a proposal to facilitate worker-led “health councils” to monitor business compliance with public health orders.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored the motion recommending that the county reach out to labor leaders and business representatives and quickly come up with effective ways to monitor compliance with mandates to wear facial coverings, install protective shields and disinfect workplaces.

Essentially, the workers themselves would monitor conditions within their workplace, Kuehl said, noting recent reports of “devastating” coronavirus outbreaks.

“Workplace and community transmission have been significant factors contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in communities across the region,” the motion reads in part. “While many businesses have been diligent in their efforts to comply with public health requirements, many others have not. This creates a public health risk not only for the businesses’ employees and customers but for the communities in which the businesses are located and in which their customers and employees live.”

Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas suggested that workers could be certified to monitor violations and report them to public health investigators for follow-up. While workers could serve as the county’s eyes and ears in a wide range of enterprises, they are likely to be reluctant to come forward without protection.

“Employees must be allowed to form public health councils without retaliation by their employer,” according to the motion.

Ridley-Thomas echoed that on Tuesday, adding that the county simply does not have enough resources to monitor enough businesses all of the time.

Solis said the plan aimed to enable workers to feel safe about coming back to work — a frequent refrain from labor groups concerned about the push to open the county’s economy too soon.

The board’s action came as a caravan of cars revved up downtown, in support of the motion, ultimately stopping front of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

Demonstrators show solidarity at a rally in front of the LA County Hall of Administration Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Community members held a car caravan and action calling on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to protect public health by supporting a motion to create Public Health Councils in the workplace. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Department of Public Health employees are already overwhelmed with trying to enforce public health orders designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two weeks ago, the board asked its lawyers to consider whether county workers who work for other departments could be assigned to assess fines against out-of-compliance businesses.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said the motion was also a part of holding businesses in all sectors accountable.

“That goes across the board into every sector,” she said. “When someone does not comply, it has a domino effect on the entire county.”

The public health councils would be dissolved after the pandemic is over.

More than 300 people tested positive for COVID-19 at Los Angeles Apparel, a South Los Angeles garment manufacturer that pivoted to sewing masks when the pandemic struck. Workplace outbreaks at a meatpacking plant in Vernon and many local grocery stores have also heightened concerns about workplace safety.

Demonstrators show solidarity at a drive-by rally in front of the LA County Hall of Administration Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Community members held a car caravan and action calling on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to protect public health by supporting a motion to create Public Health Councils in the workplace. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

A related board item, approved on Tuesday, directs county departments to align the county’s enforcement response with the state’s, in assessing businesses that are out of compliance with physical distancing directives.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that strike teams comprised of various state agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, CalOSHA, and Alcohol and Beverage Control, would fan out across the state to monitor for compliance and enforce the rules on repeat offenders.

L.A. County has had its own checks for compliance, but according to the Board motion, from Supervisor Hilda Solis, there continues to be “significant workplace outbreaks that require immediate attention.”

The action also directs “relevant stakeholders” such as labor unions to be part of the compliance process, with a goal of addressing workplace safety concerns and to make sure employees are being paid fairly and granted leave when needed.

City Editor Ryan Carter contributed to this story.