The gruesome death of a Goodwill Industries worker in south Sacramento last year has prompted the state to widen its probe of the giant nonprofit to see if similar hazards exist at another Goodwill operation in the region, The Bee has learned.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OSHA, has opened a second investigation of Goodwill, this time at its warehouse and outlet on Date Avenue. Like the outlet store on Franklin Boulevard, where Abraham Nicholas Garza was killed, the Date Avenue location houses a stationary compactor to smash tons of refuse and unsold goods.
Garza’s head was crushed last year while he was checking the alignment of a heavy empty bin that was being maneuvered to mate with the compactor. An employee for only about a month, the 26-year-old dock worker was pinned between the two pieces of equipment after a truck driver suddenly released the cable securing the bin.
Dustin Underwood, a former dispatcher at the Franklin outlet, said he believes the accident was “preventable and shouldn’t have happened.”
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“If the kid had been trained at all, he never would have stuck his head in there,” said Underwood, 33, who quit in April after seven years with Goodwill. “You never put yourself between a bin and a machine.
“Anyone who comes in, they’re put right to work,” he said. “They get them right out there on the dock, and there’s no actual training. It’s learn-as-you-go.”
Cal-OSHA spokesman Peter Melton said inspectors are now looking to see “whether the same issues or alleged hazards also existed at the Date Avenue facility.” By statute, the agency has six months to complete its investigation at the outlet, located near Interstate 80 and Madison Avenue.
Both locations are overseen by Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley & Northern Nevada, a booming nonprofit whose network of outlets, stores and Donation Xpress centers encompasses 16 counties in Northern California and 13 in northern Nevada.
Between 2002 and 2015, the Sacramento-based organization with tax-exempt status saw its gross annual revenue climb from $6.7 million to $68 million – a 10-fold increase, according to its IRS Forms 990. The annual compensation of its president and chief executive officer, Joseph Mendez, also rose dramatically over the same period, from about $94,000 in 2002 to nearly $424,000 in 2015, the IRS documents show.
Mendez and his five top executives, with combined compensation of nearly $1.5 million in 2015, declined through a spokeswoman to talk with The Bee about safety issues, the Cal-OSHA investigations or Goodwill in general.
“We operate very safely and efficiently here,” Sacramento Goodwill spokeswoman Karen McClaflin told The Bee in April.
On May 16, she declined via email to answer further questions, or to make executives available for an interview. She declined again in a June 10 email, stating that “nothing has changed for us since mid-May, so we will not be commenting on the case.”
Before the state expanded its investigation to include the Date Avenue plant, Cal-OSHA levied a record $106,675 in fines and six violations against the Sacramento-based Goodwill operation in connection with Garza’s death.
The fine is the largest OSHA penalty ever levied against a Goodwill organization nationwide in the last decade, according to a Bee analysis of federal OSHA data, which tracks both state and federal workplace investigations. In issuing the record fine, the state accused Goodwill of not training its employees in the operation of compactors, and of flagrantly failing to develop safety procedures for those who work around the dangerous equipment.
Record stands out
Sacramento also is the nation’s only Goodwill operation in the last 10 years to be charged with a “willful-serious” workplace violation, The Bee found. That classification opens up an employer and its top leaders to potential criminal prosecution and steep fines.
Alarm over a lack of training for Goodwill employees, some of them disabled, also has been raised in other states where serious, even fatal workplace accidents have occurred.
At a Goodwill operations center in Tacoma, Wash., for instance, a 27-year-old developmentally disabled worker was killed in April 2008 in a similar accident involving heavy machinery. Nick Miller, who reportedly had the cognitive abilities of a 10-year-old in some areas, died on the loading dock when he was crushed to death by a machine that lifts trash into a compactor.
Among other findings, the state of Washington cited the nonprofit for failing to properly supervise and enforce training programs for workers. A year later, the $63,000 fine and 11 violations were reduced to $13,300 and four violations.
Sacramento Goodwill executives are hoping for a similar reprieve. They are appealing four of the six citations issued in March, which make up the bulk of the monetary penalties.
“We recognize the seriousness of the action, but we don’t believe we deserve the citations that came along with it,” McClaflin said in April.
She also asserted that “it has been years since we’ve had any kind of OSHA violation.”
Federal records contradict that statement. They show it has been less than a year since the Sacramento-based organization was cited and fined, most recently at one of its donation centers in Reno. A complaint investigation at that Xpress location was opened in July 2016 by the Nevada OSHA office in Reno, resulting in a $1,500 fine and 3 violations, one of them deemed serious.
The Bee found that Sacramento’s Goodwill organization has had significantly more OSHA cases opened in the last 10 years than any of the other Goodwill groups headquartered in California, according to the federal OSHA data, collected by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Sacramento-based nonprofit is one of 13 independent Goodwill member organizations based in California. Globally, Goodwill Industries International said in its 2015 annual report that it has 164 autonomous Goodwill organizations in the U.S. and Canada that help people find jobs while collecting more than 3 billion pounds of clothing and household goods a year that otherwise would have wound up in landfills.
In the last 10 years, under the same top leadership, the Sacramento-based Goodwill organization has been the subject of 33 workplace safety inspections in California and Nevada, more than any other Goodwill group based in California, federal OSHA data show. The majority of those cases were complaint-driven and resulted in 23 violations, not counting the six violations under appeal and whatever else may emerge from the Date Avenue case.
Only Goodwill of Silicon Valley had more violations, with 30 in the last decade.
In interviews with The Bee, along with internal company documents and public records, former and current Goodwill employees in the Sacramento region describe a chaotic workplace environment with numerous safety hazards, a lack of training, poorly maintained equipment and inadequate safety gear.
Underwood, 33, the former dispatcher who worked at both the Franklin Boulevard and Date Avenue outlets, said he had numerous concerns about safety but was afraid to complain to managers out of fear he could lose his job. The father of two in a single-income family, Underwood said that the accident last year was not an isolated occurrence.
Before Garza’s death, he said, another worker was badly injured on the dock when he was struck in the head by a metal bar, resulting in his hospitalization.
Underwood, who resigned voluntarily in April, said the injured worker was still on “light duty” when he left. Former co-worker Dave Goudie confirmed Underwood’s account about the worker’s head injury and his continued impairment.
Underwood said he was particularly concerned about crowded conditions at the Franklin Boulevard warehouse which, like the Date Avenue plant, serves as a central receiver and processor of donated goods, which are then distributed to the various locations.
The Franklin location in south Sacramento is part of bustling hub of Goodwill operations concentrated along an industrial stretch of auto parts shops, tire stores, and brake and collision centers. The site, which includes an outlet store, Donation Xpress center, warehouse and transportation office, has become so popular that the line of customers on one recent Saturday was 23-deep before the outlet’s doors had even opened.
Inside, goods are sold from giant blue tubs for $1.49 a pound.
Underwood said the overflow of junk and debris at the Franklin warehouse often created unsafe conditions, with no lanes or adequate clearance for forklift drivers to maneuver around people. Cal-OSHA cited Goodwill in March for failing to clearly define aisles and walkways and keep them clear to protect employees from the “hazards from industrial trucks traveling inside the warehouse.” The fine was small, at $225.
The state reserved its largest fine – $70,000 – over its findings surrounding the lack of training and the nonprofit’s failure to correct “unsafe or unhealthy conditions,” according to Cal-OSHA’s March 30 report.
Former Goodwill employees contend that the busy compactors at both outlet locations in Sacramento are not the only workplace hazards. Underwood and two other former workers said that one of the most common tools of Goodwill’s trade – the rolling bins – also pose daily risks for being chronically overstuffed, with debris and sharp objects poking out of containers and littering the docks.
Goudie, Underwood’s former co-worker, documented the over-stuffing in a series of photographs that he shared with Goodwill managers and executives in a four-page memo dated Aug. 25, 2016.
On the last page, Goudie also stated his concerns over inadequate training for employees operating the compactors and warned that the nonprofit was exposing itself to “massive liability.”
A month after he typed his warning memo, Goudie witnessed the Sept. 30 fatal accident on the front loading dock.
Goudie, a commerical truck driver, was placed on administrative leave immediately after the accident. Seven days later, he was summoned to a meeting with corporate executives where he was fired for negligence, then banned in writing from Goodwill premises or face trespassing charges.
The driver who released the bin that struck Garza remains employed at the Franklin outlet.
“It’s just by the grace of God that more people haven’t been killed,” said Goudie, 56. “There’s just a complete lack of safety protocols within the organization.”
Goudie and Underwood were among several employees who also expressed concern to The Bee about a lack of safety gear for workers. Goodwill would not provide safety shoes, or reimburse workers – many of them paid minimum wage – for their purchase, the former workers said.
Goudie said he bought his own steel-toed shoes, which he considered vital in a workplace with heavy machinery, moving trucks and rolling bins. But many of his co-workers on the loading dock wore tennis shoes or other flimsy footwear, he said.
“Most of them couldn’t afford to go out and buy steel-toed shoes,” Goudie said.
James Ross of Sacramento said he had been homeless at times before landing a minimum wage job in about 2009 to work at the Donation Xpress centers, which he described as “popping up on every corner.”
He said the Xpress jobs were considered the lowest in the organization, with workers sifting and sorting donations and discarding trash.
“We would get some very nasty things,” said Ross, now 57. “People don’t want to take the time to go to the dump.”
Ross said that Goodwill provided latex gloves to sorters. It did not provide safety glasses or heavy work gloves, he said, even though he occasionally encountered feces, urine and syringes amid donations.
Ross, who previously had worked as a professional mover, said that Xpress employees at the time did not receive basic training in how to safely move furniture or properly use a hand dolly. “Our training consisted of learning how to sort clothes and recognize which clothes are good and which are bad,” he said. “That was our main training.”
Ross said he was fired from Goodwill in about 2012 for employee theft, an accusation he does not deny. Having experienced homelessness, he said, he resorted to taking basic necessities – food, socks, underwear – but he recognizes it was the wrong thing to do.
“That was a bad part of my life,” said Ross, who has since found a stable job elsewhere that he loves. “That was the only time I did something like that.”
Nearly nine months after the tragedy on Franklin Boulevard, the state’s Bureau of Investigations is continuing to look into Garza’s death. The bureau, part of the Department of Industrial Relations, is responsible for investigating employee fatality and serious injury cases – and preparing and referring cases for possible criminal prosecution.
Goodwill has appealed. The organization continues to assert that Goudie is at fault for the tragedy.
Underwood, who has a new job installing neon signs, said he is outraged that Goodwill has blamed his former co-worker for the accident.
“The same thing could happen again,” he said. “The best thing they could do is to be honest about it – and then fix it.”