Open for business

A sign from the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce along East Main Street in Hermiston advises shoppers that businesses are open on Nov. 20, 2020.

A suggested protest that had chambers of commerce across the state worried has not produced the feared impact so far.

Last week the Hermiston, Pendleton, Umatilla, Boardman, Irrigon and Heppner chambers shared a message they had received from the Oregon State Chamber of Commerce, citing a user post on the Open Oregon Facebook page asking people to flood the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration with complaints against businesses in order to overwhelm the agency so that it couldn’t take action against businesses flouting COVID-19 restrictions.

“We realize that local businesses are at their breaking point and wanted to make you aware of this effort,” the message from the state chamber said. “OR-OSHA anticipates hundreds/thousands of new anonymous complaints against businesses across Oregon, and these complaints could result in compliance letters being sent to your members by OR-OSHA.”

In their own joint message on Wednesday, Dec. 9, the local chambers of commerce asked their members to reach out if they appeared to have become the target of fraudulent complaints.

“We will be working with local partners and OSCC counsel on how to protect businesses and move forward should any situations of this nature arise in our region,” they said.

On Dec. 11, Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin said OSHA had so far not seen “any evidence of meaningful impact created by false complaints” since the post on Dec. 7, however.

The post urging the protest, made by Facebook user Amanda Vital on the Open Oregon Facebook page and shared more than 60 times over the next few days, stated that if people “flood the system” with anonymous complaints then “they will never know where the real targets are and they will be done enforcing these excessive laws.”

The post did not specify whether the complaints should be about real problems.

Larry Skyes, listed as the administrator for the Open Oregon page, said that the protest idea did not come from him, that he did not believe in reporting businesses to OSHA and that he encourages members of the page to support their local businesses. The post later appeared to have been removed from the page.

Kimberly Rill, director of the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce, said the email sent out by the Eastern Oregon chambers wasn’t intended as commentary on protests against COVID-19 restrictions, but rather an effort to warn members so they weren’t blindsided if they did get contacted by OSHA over what appeared to be false complaints. They wanted members to be prepared just in case, she said.

Open Oregon and similar Facebook groups have recently promoted several in-person demonstrations outside OSHA officials’ homes in response to actions taken by the agency against businesses that have flouted state rules regarding COVID-19. The Oregonian reported that about 50 protesters showed up at the Silverton home of an OSHA inspector in response to a $90,000 fine levied against Courthouse Fitness, which refused to close its gyms in the Salem area despite a statewide shutdown of gyms.

On OSHA’s end, Corvin said the agency’s mission is to protect workers from hazards on the job, including COVID-19, through a range of tools, including consultation and education for business owners.

“So, an effort to attack our ability to carry out that mission — and that includes fielding any complaints on any workplace safety subject, not just COVID-19 — makes no sense to us,” he said. “It is a false narrative to say that physical distancing and facial coverings are part of shutting down the economy, and it’s a false narrative to say that the risks presented by COVID-19 are not real. On the contrary, implementing such measures to reduce the spread of this disease and decrease the risk is how we keep the economy open and reopen portions of the economy that have had to close.”

He said it is worth remembering that only a small percentage of OSHA complaints result in inspections, and if an effort to flood the system did happen, it seemed unlikely that “any such false complaint will be convincing enough to result in an enforcement activity.”

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