July 12, 2024

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Maine wreath business was cited for record-keeping, workplace safety violations

Maine wreath business was cited for record-keeping, workplace safety violations

Morrill Worcester (center) and his sons Mike (left) and Rob. Photo courtesy Flagpole of Freedom Park/Break the Ice Media

This past Christmas season, as it has for many years, the nonprofit Wreaths Across America coordinated the placement of wreaths at thousands of graves at Arlington National Cemetery and other military burial grounds, generating glowing headlines for honoring those who sacrificed for the country.

Worcester Resources, the family-owned-for-profit company that supplies those wreaths, is also proposing to build a $1 billion “Flagpole of Freedom” park in Washington County that the Worcester family says would be “part national monument, part historical adventure, immersive tech-driven museum and architectural wonder.”

But behind the scenes is another story.

It’s a story of federal labor department fines against Worcester Resources for failing to submit required reports on illnesses and injuries involving the mostly migrant workforce of wreath makers. The company has also been penalized for violating rules on workplace safety and housing conditions.

The company and its affiliates have been fined more than $21,000 by the federal Department of Labor and its agencies for 10 violations since 2017, records show.

Most recently, Worcester Resources was fined $11,500 last May by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for three violations after a COVID outbreak the previous fall that infected as many as 80 workers and left one wreath maker dead, federal records show. OSHA investigators found that Worcester Resources failed to report the death to the agency and disregarded repeated calls to follow reporting standards.

“This violation was an act of simple indifference,” an OSHA investigator wrote of the reporting rule violation. “This standard has always been a very back burner issue for the employer as seen in its prior violations and in the manner it has dealt with the citations with OSHA.”

The scene at a Worcester wreath factory, where an OSHA inspector found an exposed shaft on a conveyor. Photo from OSHA inspection case file

The investigators also found Worcester had violated a separate workplace safety regulation involving an exposed shaft on a conveyor.

The recent violations are among several other fines and citations issued by OSHA and another Department of Labor agency over the past several years. Separately, state environmental and forestry officials have issued citations against Worcester Resources and its affiliates dating back to 2008, records show.

The Worcester family, which describes itself as the largest employer in Washington County, defended its record and said it maintains “a low violation percentage” compared to other large employers.

“We are incredibly proud of how we treat our employees — many are like family to us. Like many businesses that continue to grow there have been limited violations, but with every violation there has been an opportunity to educate and establish new procedures to ensure continued safety of our employees and environment. Our intentions have always been to be in full compliance with state and municipal laws and ordinances,” Mike and Rob Worcester, the sons of founder Morrill Worcester, said in a statement.

OSHA routinely fines companies for workplace safety violations, failing to report injuries and illness, and other infractions. Those fines are often more than the amounts levied against Worcester Resources: At least 12 Maine companies faced penalties of $40,000 or more in 2022.

The average penalty for what OSHA considers a “serious” violation in Maine was $4,107 in 2022, for example, compared with $4,000 for one of Worcester’s “serious” violations. Another recent Worcester violation for failing to report injuries or illness on the job was considered “willful” and led to a $6,000 fine, far less than the $145,027 maximum for a willful violation.

The latest Worcester violations were settled in May, less than two months after Worcester Resources announced plans to build the 2,500-acre Flagpole of Freedom development in Columbia Falls. The Worcesters say it would attract 6 million visitors and 5,000 employees, most of them year-round.

At Worcester’s request, the Legislature passed a bill last year that would allow the project to avoid review by a state planning commission by allowing Columbia Falls to annex some 10,000 acres of Worcester’s property. But town officials have since grown concerned about the impact of the development on the small town, and Worcester has said it “paused” the project while assessing funding options. Town voters will consider a moratorium on new development on March 21.

The fines from OSHA and other agencies — especially the violations involving the workers who prepare the balsam wreaths — have gone largely unnoticed. The Maine Monitor obtained OSHA inspection reports and other documents by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

When asked about the violations and their planned development project, the Worcesters said, “There should be no impact on the Flagpole of Freedom.”

“Each violation has been addressed with the state, federal officials and decision-makers with education and procedures put into place to ensure compliance,” they said. “Officials would feel proud to work with us based on our records, integrity, and tenacity to do good for others.”

Amalia Dortilus’ first day of work with Worcester Resources was Oct. 25, 2021, according to OSHA’s inspection records. She was part of a largely migrant workforce — many from Haiti — that comes to the area to harvest and assemble the wreaths every fall.

She died in mid-November, a victim of the raging COVID pandemic.

By the time OSHA got word of the death in early December, its inspectors were already conducting an investigation into a COVID outbreak among workers at the Worcester wreath operations in Washington County.

In a statement describing that time period, Worcester Resources said it was in daily communication with the state of Maine and its agencies “from the moment we first heard about a potential outbreak” and worked with them to develop a response.

The Worcesters said in their statement that migrant workers were required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment in the lead-up to the 2021 season, and the employees were told they would be compensated if they sought testing or became sick. The company also said the Maine Mobile Health United provided testing and treatment, and the company purchased hand sanitizers, masks and cleaning equipment to prevent the spread.

However, OSHA e-mails, inspection reports, and investigators’ hand-written notes from that time period obtained by The Maine Monitor show that state and federal officials were scrambling to understand the extent of the outbreak in the late fall of 2021. They repeatedly pressed Worcester for details and documentation, including the forms the federal agency requires employers to fill out if someone is sick or injured on the job.

Notes taken by the OSHA investigator say he called a Worcester manager three times on Nov. 5, 2021 and twice more on Nov. 8. He connected on the last call, but she was unable to provide the required up-to-date form — called an OSHA 300 record — that would document any illness or injury such as COVID. She later provided one such form — for 2020, not the current year.

“(The inspector) requested more documents such as an updated OSHA 300 record. She said she would have to look into that,” one document says.

“Left a message for her to call me back and/or to reply to my last two emails. Told her that the next option would be subpoenas,” another hand-written note from the inspector says.

Farmworker advocates and a state labor official forwarded complaints to OSHA and the Department of Labor about the outbreak at the Worcester wreath operation and worried about the spread of the virus.

“Workers staying in temporary worker housing owned and provided by Worcester resources … are essentially living in a COVID petri dish, in constant contamination through ongoing close contact,” wrote Jorge Acero, the state monitor advocate for the state Department of Labor, in a Dec. 1, 2021 email to the U.S. Department of Labor. “Local communities such as Columbia Falls and Milbridge are vulnerable as these infected workers travel to grocery stories and gas station(s) most unmasked.”

At the time, Maine was experiencing another COVID surge. The Portland Press Herald reported on Nov. 15, 2021 that the state experienced a record number of hospitalizations. A total of 1,230 people had died of the virus in Maine by that point.

Alarmed by the growing number of cases at the Worcester facilities, a safety and health officer from OSHA visited the factory in Columbia Falls on Dec. 16, according to his inspection report.

There were about 65 wreath workers at the factory when he arrived, working “in close proximity” to one another. About two-thirds were not wearing masks.

When he asked the building manager about the wreath workers’ lack of masks, according to the OSHA investigator’s notes, she replied: “It’s their choice. We have a policy but it is up to them if they want to use them. Some do.”

The manager noted that the workers would have already departed for the season by the time the OSHA investigator arrived Dec. 16, but the company received a last-minute order for 3,000 more wreaths. A crew came in for a half-day to complete the order.

The investigator also found a separate violation: An exposed shaft protruded from a pulley on a conveyor belt, creating a potential hazard for nearby workers who could have a pants leg entangled.

As part of the investigation, OSHA learned that one of the wreath making employees, later identified in the records as Amalia Dortilus, had died on Nov. 15 or Nov. 16 after going to the hospital.

Worcester managers learned Nov. 17 she had died, but did not report the fatality to the agency within the required eight hours of death, OSHA says. Nor did the company conduct contact tracing to determine who she had been in contact with, according to an OSHA “violation worksheet.” The OSHA inspector also noted that Worcester had not reported 24 instances of “work-related COVID-19 infections” among employees to the federal agency.

In early January 2022, Worcester provided an updated form confirming the worker’s death and the COVID outbreak, a month and a half after she died. In a January 2022 response to OSHA, a Worcester company human resources official provided a timeline of Dortilus’ death.

The official said she learned an ambulance had gone to the wreath workers’ housing area on Nov. 13. Two days later, she said, she learned that a worker had contracted COVID and not come to work; she said she learned Nov. 17 an employee had died.

OSHA issued penalties against Worcester Resources for three violations, including for failing to report the death of an employee. OSHA inspection case file

She said she initially did not realize the two episodes — the ambulance visit and the COVID case — involved the same person. The employee’s supervisor said the worker had missed work recently and had been seen holding her stomach, so he assumed the medical problem had to do with her stomach.

Worcester told the Monitor that the company had established written COVID policies in multiple languages to ensure the safety of the workers. OSHA records say a Worcester official previously held an informational meeting at which workers were given $5 each — plus their hourly wage — to encourage them to attend so they could learn about the COVID policy.

In addition, the Worcesters said in their statement that the company worked closely with the Maine Mobile Health Program and the Centers for Disease Control. Workers who tested positive for COVID were taken to a Bangor hotel to quarantine. “They did not remain in housing after testing positive,” a Worcester manager wrote to OSHA in January 2022.

The human resources manager also told OSHA in early November of 2021 that the “vast majority” of employees with COVID worked for farmworker contractors — not Worcester itself.

But in a narrative describing his visit to the Worcester factory, the OSHA investigator gave a different account of the makeup of the workforce, reporting that 42 workers who became infected with COVID were contractor employees and 38 more who tested positive worked directly for Worcester.

In a worksheet justifying the penalty against Worcester Resources, an OSHA official categorized the violation for failing to record work-related injuries as “willful.” The official went on to criticize the company for its masking practices.

“Despite the CDC’s warnings and guidance regarding the usage of masks in close quarters, the employer allowed its employees to use their own discretion as to whether or not they wore masks in the facility. This was the case even after the employer experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 in its facilities where over 80 employees tested positive for COVID-19,” the OSHA official wrote.

An OSHA investigator pointed to Worcester Resources’ previous citations in recommending a penalty. OSHA Violation Worksheet

OSHA recommended a penalty of $26,106 for the violations but the amount was later reduced, as often happens in the agency’s cases, after an informal settlement meeting. Notes from the settlement meeting in May 2022 indicate that Worcester fought the penalty.

“The Company is still not certain that the COVID-19 fatality is work-related,” says a memo summarizing Worcester’s position during the informal settlement meeting. Further, the Worcester representatives contended that the company thought the death had already been reported by state officials. Worcester also downplayed the risk of the exposed shaft on the factory conveyor belt, records show.

“We will not pay more than $10,000 in fines because we are a seasonal business, and we have entered the slow season,” the summary says.

Under a final settlement agreement, Worcester paid a $11,500 penalty for the three recent violations and agreed to participate in training to teach its staff how to fill out required injury reports for OSHA. The contractors were not fined, and OSHA determined that masks were not specifically required at that time.

In addition, Worcester Holdings was fined $3,834.60 in 2022 for violations involving the housing for migrant workers who cut fir tips. Worcester “failed to conduct pre-occupancy inspections and obtain water tests,” said James Lally, a Department of Labor spokesman.

A man who worked for another Worcester company, Worcester Peat, also died due to COVID in November 2021, according to Lally. The peat operation is overseen by another federal agency, and no OSHA violation was issued.

In a statement, Worcester Resources noted that more than 500 seasonal employees come to the area for the wreath and fir operations. It reiterated that they had worked closely with Maine Mobile Health and the CDC throughout the outbreak, and insisted it was in “full compliance” with CDC guidelines to stop the spread of the virus.

The Worcesters, referring to the wreath maker who died, said in their statement to the Monitor that company officials were “unaware that this employee was ill.”

“It is heartbreaking and tragic that an employee did not seek the medical care they desperately needed at the time, but it was freely available to them,” their statement said.

The company added: “Worcester Resources was surprised to be issued a record-keeping violation by OSHA while we communicated daily with two other state agencies during this same time frame.”

The 2022 OSHA penalty marked the third time in five years that the agency cited Worcester for violating regulations on maintaining workplace injury records.

“Employer has lengthy history with OSHA recordkeeping issues,” one OSHA “violation worksheet” says.

OSHA cited Worcester Resources in 2017 and 2019 for failing to keep records on work-related illnesses and injuries, and other safety violations. The penalties for those two years totaled $9,845, records show.

After the agency found violations in the 2019 case, the company did not promptly pay the fines. “The employer did not respond to the citation package,” an OSHA document said in justifying the latest citations. “It was necessary for the national office to pursue the company for failure to pay penalties on citations in 2020.”

In 2018, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found Worcester owed $55,654.16 in back wages to 95 employees “due to failure to pay overtime” during the 2018 season, according to Lally. In that same year, four subcontractors that supplied workers to Worcester Wreath were also ordered to pay thousands of dollars in back wages to workers, according to OSHA officials.

One longtime advocate for the largely migrant workforce said the wreath makers and the nonprofits who help them walk a tenuous path.

“There are very few protections in place and very few avenues for recourse. It’s a fragile system for workers,” said Beth Russet, who was a clinician for more than 10 years with the Maine Mobile Health Program.

In addition to the proposed flagpole park project, the Worcester family is known for its wreath operation. A nonprofit organization, Wreaths Across America has drawn scrutiny from news outlets for its overlapping ties with the for-profit Worcester Resources. Karen Worcester is the executive director of Wreaths Across America. She is the wife of Morrill Worcester, the family patriarch who heads up Worcester Resources and its affiliates.

Wreaths Across America paid Worcester Resources $20.6 million for wreaths in the year ending June 2022, according to its most recent tax filing.

Wreaths Across America says the relationship with Worcester Resources and Worcester Wreath is proper and has been disclosed to the IRS. Worcester family representatives say the non-profit and the for-profit entities are separate. The company says Worcester Resources was selected as the wreath contractor via a bidding process.

“The donation of wreaths from the Worcester Wreath Co. began as a personal tribute from the Worcester family to service members who stepped up to protect this country and our freedoms,” says a statement on the Wreaths Across America website about the years-long history of the wreath distribution. “Wreaths Across America is proud of its commitment to its mission and offers full transparency with donors.”

Aside from the workplace violations, Worcester and its affiliates have been cited for a handful of state forestry violations involving their property holdings over the past 15 years.

The largest came in 2008, when Worcester Holdings and a subsidiary agreed to pay $95,000 for violations under a consent decree regarding clear cutting and other forestry violations. There were other forestry violations in 2009, 2018 and 2022, according to state records.

Worcester Resources, in its statement, said: “Each one of these violations were unrelated to one another, and all were swiftly and fully resolved.”

Last summer, inspectors with the state Department of Environmental Protection found another apparent violation: The company had built several dozen cabins without getting necessary permits. A website for the cabins says they were “built with the intention of our guests viewing the progress of the future Flagpole of Freedom Park.”

“During the inspection, staff found 54 cabins, an office building, a take-out restaurant, parking areas and access roads that were either under construction or had been completed,” the state DEP said in a notice dated July 15. “An area in excess of three acres had been stripped, graded and not revegetated at the time of the inspection.”

Worcester was issued a “notice of violation.” That case is still pending.

David Madore, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said late last month that DEP notified Worcester it had missed a February deadline to retroactively submit an application for the cabins.

“The Department is presently making decisions regarding the next steps in enforcement,” Madore said.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.

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