The Stand

UNFI cited for severe COVID violations at Centralia facility

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TUMWATER (Feb. 9, 2022) — When workers housed in Thurston County hotels and employed at a Lewis County distribution center owned and operated by United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) got sick with COVID-19, they walked to the hospital for help, and feared they could lose their jobs if they went home sick. At least one worker was told to report to work because they had not tested positive for COVID-19 when in fact they had. And, initially no one notified workers that they’d been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace.

The Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) opened several inspections after the agency received a referral from the Thurston County Health Department. As a result, three businesses with employees working at that location — UNFI, Capstone Logistics LLC, and Prime 360 — are facing more than $285,000 in overall fines for knowingly putting their workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19. Six other businesses in the warehouse were cited for less serious violations including not having COVID-19 plans and not keeping proper records.

In 2018, UNFI acquired the unionized SuperValu grocery warehouse in Tacoma and moved the work to the non-union facility in Centralia, ignoring a Teamsters Local 117 contract provision requiring them to pay the same pay and benefits at the new location. After the union challenged UNFI in arbitration and won in 2019, the company refused to honor the arbitration award, and has tied up the case in federal court ever since. But the union is still fighting for the workers.

“It’s no surprise that UNFI is facing massive fines by the Department of Labor and Industries for not keeping workers and community safe during the pandemic,” said John Scearcy, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117. “This company has repeatedly shown that they do not respect their employees or local communities, and will shirk its contractual obligations in order to maximize corporate profits. UNFI’s business model is rooted in greed with a complete disregard for workers, families, and community.”

At UNFI, Capstone and Prime 360, L&I inspections revealed a lack of basic safety procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19. L&I also 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.

“Our investigation uncovered a widespread outbreak that put employees, their families, and their communities across 10 counties at risk for COVID-19,” said Joel Sacks, L&I director. “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.”

UNFI owns and operates the million-square-foot food supply warehouse that serves hundreds of regional grocery stores and military operations. There are about 1,000 employees at the location; 600 work directly for the company, and the rest are contract workers. 

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. As a result, L&I issued an Order of Immediate Restraint (OIR) to ensure safety measures were in place before the facility re-opened.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. Total fines are $140,000 and the company will be subject to increased scrutiny from L&I as part of the severe violator program.

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