FILE — Oregon face masks sign

(The Center Square) – Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 71 Oregon businesses have been issued 129 citations related to the pandemic by inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For some businesses, fines have cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

Issued between May 2020 and April 2021, those citations span 37 cities and 20 counties in the state, public records obtained by The Center Square show. Of the 71 businesses cited, 43 were based in four counties – Multnomah, Jackson, Washington and Deschutes. In all, the cost of those fines totaled $182,125 – an average of $2,565 per business. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, that's the equivalent to more than 8,600 hours of pay at the state's median hourly wage.

OSHA workplace citations fall under two classifications: willful and nonwillful. The former is punishable with fines ranging between $8,900 to $126,749. The latter can carry penalties costing between $100 to $4,200 for unintended safety violations. Like willful negligence in legal terms, the agency said it's a challenge to prove that a willful violation took place.

"The citations we issue are fact-specific determinations," OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin said. "Proving a willful violation is a high bar. We have to substantiate it."

In some cases,

Corvin said it can take a public announcement from a business owner broadcasting their plan to defy health orders to prove willful intent in some cases. That was true for Capitol Racquet Sports Inc., which defied Gov. Kate Brown's orders and kept all four of its Marion County gyms open last fall. That decision cost its owner, John Miller, $90,000, the highest fine in the state in 2020. His decision also drew support from Brown's political opponents, who brought their anger over COVID-19 shutdowns to an OSHA inspector's home in November.

Employees must maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves, coworkers, and customers under Oregon and OSHA's pandemic workplace rules, in addition to wearing face masks whenever possible. Workplaces also must have adequate sanitation, hand soap and running water available at all times, as well as signs displaying health and safety information. 

Out of the 71 businesses fined in Oregon last year over COVID-19 violations, only eight were reported as willful violators. Four were repeat offenders. Officials counted Miller's gyms among both groups. He received another $126,749 fine in January, which he has appealed.

The vast majority of the employers cited for COVID-19 violations in 2020 were small business owners who run less than .001% of the 387,819 small businesses in Oregon reported by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Businesses have 30 days to appeal an OSHA citation. Only three Oregon businesses in the past year have seen their costs reduced in court.

Oregonians still face a more uncertain economy than ever as jobless rates hover around 6% and the state's eviction moratorium is set to expire in June. While most of the state has reopened its doors to indoor dining and entertainment, COVID-19 cases are back on the rise, leading one state health official to propose the state mandate face masks "until no longer necessary."

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.