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The $421,880 question: Who takes the hit when state punishes itself?
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

The Division of Occupational Health & Safety, better known as Cal/OSHA, is a State of California agency.

They are charged with workplace health and safety. The most effective hammer they have is leveling fines against violators of state laws designed to protect employees.

The fines, when they are sizable, can ding a large corporation’s bottom line. Small fines in the single thousands can hurt a small enterprise perhaps even forcing the owner to cut back on what he can take out of his business to support their family.

A moderate fine in the tens of thousands — think of the punishments dealt out for small infractions of the American with Disabilities Act such as the dimensions of a handicapped parking stall being slightly off — can put a small concern out of business or force them to take on debt. Such fines often happen even if such clearly inadvertent errors were promptly corrected as more than a few Manteca and Ripon businesses discovered a few years back.

San Quentin Prison, like Cal/OSHA, is also a state entity given it is part of a state agency, the California Department of Corrections.

This week Cal/OSHA announced it was slamming San Quentin Prison with a $421,880 fine for failing to follow protocols to assure employee health when it came to dealing with COVID-19 issues.

It’s the largest COVID-19 fine levied by the Cal/OSHA. It was for committing four willful-serious, five serious, one regulatory, and four general category violations.

The violations stemmed from the prison personnel not being adequately trained or equipped to deal with infected inmates. Employees in contact with infected inmates were not given proper medical services such as contract tracing, testing or referrals to doctors.

In what has been described as “one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation” at one point 75 percent of the inmate population became sick. There were 28 inmates and one correctional officer that died from COVID-19.

All of this brings us to the $421,880 question: Who does the fine punish?

The fining of a private sector punishes the pocketbooks of the owner whether it is an individual or a corporation. These are individuals and concerns that had some degree of oversight of the situation.

But who does the fine on San Quentin Prison hurt? It is the taxpayers that have no oversight or comfort of the workplace.

Even more bizarre is the fact taxpayers are being fined by people hired with tax dollars. That essentially means $421,880 is being transferred around on state balance sheets. This means the fine — designed as a punishment — won’t punish anyone.

And if you argue it is punishing the state, if it were viewed as a business then the “owners” are being punished which are California residents who all in some form or another pay taxes.

The Cal/OSHA punishment mechanism is completely off base when it comes to holding public entities accountable for workplace health and safety failings.

Fining San Quentin Prison per se is not holding anybody accountable. What does the loss of $421,880 from their budget mean? Are they going to lay off a couple of correctional officers?

It is clear the state needs to come up with mechanisms to punish those that oversee public entities and public workplace operations that have no financial skin in the game except for the fact they draw a paycheck, collect benefits, and build up a retirement fund.

And the issue of holding state agencies and the people who actually run them accountable doesn’t stop at what appears to be the wanton disregard of Cal/OSHA regulations.

The fact the California Economic Development Department managed to pay out more than $14 billion and counting in fraudulent jobless claims tied to COVID-19 relief and the head of the EDD was forced to resign hardly sounds like anybody got punished on the public payroll for egregious behavior.

The general may have been replaced but it is clear there are a lot of “commissioned” officers in the ranks and not just sergeants in the trenches that were in a position to have a much clearer working knowledge of the fraud and did nothing except collect their paychecks.

No one was punished. Everyone kept their job. And the taxpayers suffered big time to the tune of $14 billion.

Anybody want to take a wild guess what could have been done with $14 billion or how much better everyone would have been off if the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the fraud for decades to come until debt undertaken to cover the losses is paid off?

There needs to be consequences in the public sector just as there is in the private sector.

Perhaps employees found responsible for command-style decisions that lead to an erosion of workplace health and safety precautions or outright massive fraud should suffer some financial pain just like if they were in the private sector. If they can operate as if they own the agency they work for and play by their own rules then they need to face the same consequences as if they had a stake in a private entity.

Accountability is a hollow word in Sacramento.

Taxpayers should have some expectation that those who jeopardize public workers’ health and safety such as the correctional officers at San Quentin Prison are punished financially. If no one wants to subject them to fines, losing their jobs might be the answer.

The same goes for those that let fraud run rampant despite reports that are now showing that the warning signs were about as hard to detect as a 30-minute nonstop aerial fireworks display on the Fourth of July during the processing of EDD checks.