Plant nursery under investigation for banning face masks

Flower World near Snohomish allegedly sent a letter to employees saying “employees cannot wear masks.”

MALTBY — The state is investigating a plant nursery south of Snohomish for allegedly not allowing employees to wear face masks while working.

A Department of Labor and Industries inspector visited Flower World in Maltby last week. It can take up to six months to complete an inspection, but coronavirus-related cases are typically wrapped up much more quickly than that, department spokesman Tim Church said.

According to two Flower World employees, a letter stating that workers may not wear face coverings while on the job accompanied their paycheck in early June. One employee later quit as a result of the policy.

“The State recommendations consider Flower World’s operation as a Negligible Transmission Risk as long as certain conditions are met; wearing of masks is not required,” said the Flower World letter, dated June 3.

The letter cited health concerns, such as the possibility that a mask could be a source of infection when not properly handled.

“The use of a mask for eight … hours can be dangerous when it limits fresh air going into lungs and inhaling potentially Covid 19 contaminated air all day long through a contaminated mask,” the letter said. “… We have come to the conclusion that the use of a mask is an inherent danger to the wearer. Therefore Flower World employees cannot wear masks.”

The letter also outlined some of Flower World’s social-distancing and sanitation practices. Those include employees washing their hands 12 times per day, maintaining six feet between people at all times and directing customers to information booths with protective shields rather than approaching workers.

When contacted by The Daily Herald, Flower World owner John Postema would not say whether he authorized the letter.

“It is company policy not to comment on internal employee matters,” he said in an email.

“All I can say is, that we are in compliance with all OSHA and L&I requirements. Our requirements for the protection of our employees have been approved by Labor and Industries as of 3 days ago,” he wrote.

However, that was before the visit by a Labor and Industries inspector on June 15.

According to state guidance released May 28, employers are required to supply personal protective equipment for their employees, including face masks.

“Cloth facial coverings must be worn by every employee not working alone on the job site,” according to a Gov. Jay Inslee proclamation.

The state issued further guidance June 2 that “employers are required to ensure that employees have clean face coverings on a daily basis.”

If a company does not follow the requirements, Church said, they can be cited and fined for violating workplace safety rules.

On Thursday, none of the employees in the foliage and vegetable floors at Flower World appeared to be wearing face coverings.

The company’s website says the garden center has 15 acres of displays. Many visitors were navigating the vast nursery with paper maps.

Neither employees on the floor — watering plants and rearranging displays — nor those behind Plexiglas shields at the checkout counter appeared to be wearing masks. Red tape marked six-foot distances in front of the counters.

One former Flower World employee told The Herald she quit her cashier job at the nursery over fear for her safety.

“I live with my family and sometimes go over to my grandparents’ house to bring them groceries,” said the 22-year-old. “It’s not a risk I can take to expose myself and expose people who are older.”

She took the cashier position about two months ago. From the get-go, she said, employees at the nursery showed disregard for wearing face coverings.

“It was almost like people thought other people were overreacting,” she said.

Despite Flower World’s requirement that workers wash their hands 12 times per day, she said, her lunch break was the only time she was given to step away and wash her hands. Sometimes, soap had run out at the sink, she said.

She was one of a handful of employees who wore face coverings.

Then on June 3, she received the letter saying employees weren’t allowed to wear masks. She quit the next day.

“It was kind of a hard decision because you don’t really want to leave a job in the middle of a pandemic when people are having a hard time finding jobs,” she said. “I realized it was a safety concern for me.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

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