The State Worker

Blood and syringes: Caltrans fined after union complaint over homeless camp cleanups

Union complaints over homeless camp cleanup led California’s workplace safety enforcer to fine the state’s transportation department, the department’s union announced Wednesday.

The International Union of Operating Engineers filed a complaint with CalOSHA in November as part of broader effort to prod Caltrans into adding protections for workers who clean up human waste, used feminine hygiene products and needles when they clear homeless camps under bridges and along roadways, said Steve Crouch, the union’s director of public employees.

“This is not in their job specifications,” Crouch said. “Caltrans workers were hired to maintain the highways and bridges.”

The union’s CalOSHA complaint said Caltrans District 3 workers lacked blood borne pathogen training and the equipment they needed to clean up homeless camps safely under the Vietnam Veterans Bridge on U.S. Highway 50 in Placerville.

The union has also filed a grievance with Caltrans over the cleanup work, and expects to enter arbitration proceedings in November, Crouch said. He said the department should provide training, equipment and a pay bump for workers tasked with cleaning up human waste or it should hire outside contractors specializing in biohazards.

Caltrans clears dozens of homeless camps every day, according to records obtained by McClatchy through the California Public Records Act. Its spending on outside contracts for that work more than tripled between 2013 and 2018 as the number of homeless people living in California swelled.

“The number of illegal encampments along the state highway is growing rapidly,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said in an email. “The ever-increasing challenge of responding to this problem is of great importance to Caltrans. Job duties related to performing illegal encampment cleanups have been appropriately assigned to Caltrans maintenance workers in accordance with the California Department of Human Resources’ specifications for those positions. Caltrans is already using qualified contractors for homeless encampment cleanup in certain situations.”

The department is facing a civil rights lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court in which homeless Californians allege Caltrans crews have illegally seized their property. Relatives of a homeless woman who was killed in an accident during a Modesto homeless camp cleanup in August also are suing Caltrans in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

A CalOSHA official said in an email to the union that citations issued May 2 came in response to the union’s complaint, but the citation doesn’t specifically address blood-borne pathogen training or equipment.

The citation faults Caltrans generally for its failure to “review all investigations of occupational accidents and illnesses” and for not training all employees on the department’s injury and illness prevention program. CalOSHA fined the department $850 for two citations.

CalOSHA cited the Department of General Services last summer over its policies for needles and other sharp objects and its hazard assessments following a union complaint over workers having to clean up after homeless people in Sacramento’s State Capitol Park.

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