Public works crew says San Francisco fails to provide toilets, hand washing stations during COVID

Members of a union representing about 350 Department of Public Works employees in San Francisco have filed a state workplace grievance against the city for allegedly failing to enforce mask use or provide adequate handwashing stations or toilets.

And as a result, nine city workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last three weeks at the 2323 Cesar Chavez St. Maintenance Yard facility, according to a Cal-OSHA "imminent hazard" complaint filed Jan. 29. One employee is now hospitalized with COVID. OSHA investigations typically take six months to complete and issue a finding. 

"We need action now to protect workers and the public from COVID-19," Theresa Foglio-Ramirez, business agent for Laborers’ Local Union 261, said Wednesday. "San Francisco talks a good game about protection and prevention, but they treat their own workers as if we are expendable."

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works said that the "safety of our employees, all considered essential workers, remains a top concern and priority. Public Works takes the threat of COVID-19 transmission extremely seriously and, guided by public health authorities, has been enacting and regularly updating safety measures since the start of the global pandemic."

The Public Works Department provides staff with cleaning and disinfection supplies to clean and disinfect work trucks and tools,  and employees also provided access to restrooms and hand sanitizer.  

The statement did not address the condition of the toilets of the hand washing stations. 

Foglio-Ramirez said the union wants immediate action because San Franciso is also refusing to enforce mask use or provide employees with reasonable access to sanitary and safe restrooms and fully-stocked handwashing stations during their shifts. Foglio-Ramirez called the situation dire.

She said employees are forced to share filthy public restrooms, if they can find any, with people living on the street. And sometimes, the toilets and handwashing stations are littered with drugs and other human bio-hazards. One of her colleagues was recently sprayed with urine and had nowhere to clean up. 

Hand washing stations in San Francisco.

Portable toilet used by Department of Public Works employees.

Before the pandemic, Foglio-Ramirez said she and her colleagues could wash their hands and go to the bathroom in nearby restaurants. But now, these businesses are closed for indoor dining and don't allow customers to use the facilities, she said.

Possible solutions in her mind include buying more portable toilets for city use only and allowing Public Works employees to wash up elsewhere, like in a police or Muni building or a fire station. 

"Right now, we're not allowed to," she said. 

She said the union filed a grievance months ago, has written the Board of Supervisors as well, but her members cannot wait any longer, which is why they filed the complaint with Cal-OSHA. 

"It is inhumane for San Francisco to treat its own employees and citizens this way during the pandemic," Foglio-Ramirez said.