The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a $136,000 fine against a Massachusetts tax preparer that allegedly prohibited employees from wearing masks at work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The fine against Liberty Tax Service of Lynn marks the biggest penalty OSHA has levied related to COVID-19, an agency spokesperson confirmed. It is likely a sign of more aggressive enforcement of workplace safety now that the Biden administration is in charge.
Galen Blanton, a regional administrator for OSHA in Boston, said in a statement that the owner of the tax service, Ariana Murrell-Rosario, demonstrated a “willful refusal to implement basic safeguards” to protect employees from the coronavirus.
In a phone interview, Murrell-Rosario acknowledged that she did not allow employees to wear masks and forbade customers from wearing them as well. She said masks are a “deadly” health hazard and “should be banned out of this country.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks “anywhere they will be around other people” in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The idea that the masks themselves make people sick has thrived in some corners of the internet, but public health experts have widely debunked it.
Murrell-Rosario said there are typically five or six people working in each of two offices. She said she will continue to prohibit mask use despite the OSHA fine.
A $136,000 fine may not sound too hefty, but it is much larger than most penalties OSHA issued during the Trump administration. Those fines were typically in the low five figures, even in cases of major outbreaks at meatpacking plants. After four Smithfield meatpacking plant workers died of COVID-19 last year, OSHA issued a fine of just $13,494.
In the Massachusetts case, the agency raised the penalty by deeming it a “willful” violation, which comes with a higher price tag than standard fines. “Willful” means the employer knowingly failed to comply with the law or showed “plain indifference” to workers’ health.
Many workplace safety experts criticized leadership in the Donald Trump administration for not reaching for these big-ticket penalties, arguing that they could have sent a message to other employers that they needed to follow basic safety protocols. They also said the agency was moving too slowly in issuing fines during a public health crisis, often taking nearly six months to hand out citations.
In the Massachusetts case, investigators moved more quickly. They opened the investigation on March 17 and cited the company three weeks later, on April 8.
OSHA regulations tend to be highly specific, but there are no rules on the books related expressly to COVID-19. So the agency has issued most of its fines based on the “general duty” clause, a broadly worded rule that says an employer must provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards.”
Safety advocates have been pressing OSHA to issue a temporary emergency standard that would require employers to follow specific guidelines on the virus, subject to fines. The Trump administration did not issue such a standard, and so far neither has the Biden administration, despite signaling early on that it probably would.
Murrell-Rosario said none of her employees had gotten sick yet and that the complaints prompting the investigation probably came from customers who were told not to wear masks inside. Initial OSHA fines are often reduced, and Murrell-Rosario said she plans to fight them.
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