Three businesses tied to grocery distribution in Centralia were assessed more than a quarter-million dollars in fines Tuesday by the state's department of Labor & Industries over COVID-19 safety violations between July and October.
In a news release issued Tuesday, L&I described grim treatment of both direct hires and contract workers exposed to COVID-19 in cases tied to the United Natural Foods Inc. distribution center in Centralia.
According to L&I, workers housed in Thurston County hotels working for the Lewis County distribution center "walked to the hospital for help and feared they could lose their jobs if they went home sick."
L&I said at least one worker was told to report to work because they had not tested positive for COVID-19 when in fact they had. Initially no one notified workers that they'd been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, according to the release.
The companies, UNFI, Capstone Logistics and Prime 360, each plan to challenge the claims as they face more than $285,000 in overall fines for "knowingly putting their workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19," L&I said Tuesday.
The department launched its investigation after a referral from the Thurston County Health Department.
Six other businesses in the warehouse were cited for less serious violations, including not having COVID-19 plans and not keeping proper records.
L&I said its inspections "revealed a lack of basic safety procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19."
The department said it 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."
Joel Sacks, L&I director, underscored the seriousness of the violations and the scope, saying the outbreak "put employees, their families, and their communities across 10 counties at risk for COVID-19.
"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."
Capstone and Prime 360 have appealed the citations and fines, according to L&I.
UNFI told The News Tribune on Tuesday that it also would appeal.
"We are aware of the citation received from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries and are appealing its claims," the company said in a statement.
UNFI said Tuesday that its front-line associates "have been essential in keeping food and groceries moving to our customers, allowing them to support and feed their local communities. Our company's most important value across all distribution centers, including Centralia, is the safety of our associates, contractors, customers, and the products we sell, and we have been recognized over the past several years for having implemented industry-leading COVID-19 safety protocols."
Capstone and Prime did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Fines generated in such cases go to the workers compensation supplemental pension fund to assist injured workers and families of those who have died on the job.
UNFI operates the massive distribution site that serves hundreds of regional grocery stores, including Whole Foods, and military operations. UNFI opened the site in 2019 after closing its Tacoma location.
L&I noted that about a thousand employees work at the Centralia distribution center; 600 work directly for the company, and the rest are contract workers.
The outbreak occurred as Delta COVID cases were on the rise and the state's supply chains were keenly feeling the strain of workers out sick isolating or under quarantine.
In August, UNFI told The News Tribune the site would be closed through Aug. 7, and it was working in conjunction with Lewis County Public Health & Social Services.
UNFI at the time said, "Before returning to work, UNFI will require individuals at its Centralia distribution center to have two negative COVID-19 tests to further mitigate the risk of transmission."
It also said it had hosted on-site COVID vaccination clinics, though uptick in Lewis County had been low.
According to Tuesday's L&I release: "After the initial investigation in July made the extent of the outbreak clear, UNFI 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.
"UNFI 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."
That led to L&I issuing an Order of Immediate Restraint (OIR) "to ensure safety measures were in place before the facility re-opened," the department said Tuesday.
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, with total fines of $140,000.
It also will be subject to heightened monitoring under L&I's severe violator program.
Capstone Logistics LLC, with 200 workers at the site who pull product for outgoing shipments, saw 54 of its workers test positive, with one hospitalization, according to L&I.
The department contends Capstone overloaded worker vans for transport without health screenings 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," according to L&I.
It also was cited for not reporting a hospitalization, and other non-COVID related violations.
Capstone was fined $75,400 and is also on the department's severe violator list.
About two-dozen Prime 360 workers are at the site to empty returning trailers of unsorted pallets and to sort them for future use. That company saw four of its workers test positive for COVID-19 during the time frame and was fined $70,000 for "willful serious violation" of COVID safety rules, L&I said Tuesday.