Tribal Council’s review of EQC casino says allegations in OSHA complaint ‘not supported’

Tribal Council’s review of EQC casino says allegations in OSHA complaint ‘not supported’
The Puyallup Tribal Council on Thursday issued a statement regarding an internal investigation of an OSHA complaint filed against the Emerald Queen Casino regarding COVID-19 safety issues. (Drew Perine, The News Tribune)

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Operators of the Tacoma Emerald Queen Casino on Thursday released a statement about their investigation into allegations of COVID-19 safety issues at the popular newly built destination gaming site.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians operates the Tacoma casino and another in Fife.

Last week, details of a complaint filed July 15 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration listed allegations of various health safety issues at the Tacoma casino.

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The Tribal Council posted its official response to the complaint on its website, saying,”The broad allegations set forth in the OSHA letter were not supported” by its internal investigation.

“Upon receipt of the letter, EQC promptly started and completed an investigation and sent the results to OSHA,” according to the post.

OSHA may seek more information, conduct an on-site inspection or simply close the complaint, the council added.

The statement noted while the council doesn’t normally comment on internal investigations, “given the public concern about COVID-19, the Tribal Council took the opportunity to take a deep look at what was working at the EQC, what could be improved and to see how well our practices measured up to the policies we put into place.”

“As OSHA stated, the letter was not a citation or proposed penalty, but a requirement for EQC to investigate the alleged hazards, report the findings and take corrective measures where necessary,” the statement said.

Top among the list of issues in the OSHA complaint were allegations of overcrowding in the High Limit section of the casino, “60 to 100 people on busy nights in approximately 100 square feet of space.”

Other allegations included patrons and some employees, including cooks, not wearing masks, “numerous sick players” in attendance, a shortage and/or nonusage of hand sanitizer and numerous workers infected with coronavirus, including at least one employee working through a shift with visible symptoms of illness. A breach of worker health confidentiality involving a COVID alert also was listed.

The council statement said that the “investigation included close review of security camera footage, review of logs and employee interviews.”

The statement did not address the specific allegations individually but offered general details of its findings.

“Overall, the investigation found that our EQC employees have gone above and beyond to keep the guests and themselves safe. Yet, certain areas needed immediate improvement and policy reinforcement, including making sure masks are being properly worn at all times by guests and employees in all areas of the casino in strict adherence to the COVID policy,” according to the statement.

“This action was taken straightaway.

“EQC managers also looked for ways to further improve safety measures, including the creation of one point of contact for all EQC COVID-related issues and the adoption of improved employee contact tracing protocols. As more is learned about the virus, EQC is committed to adapt, as we all must, in dealing with this novel and changing pandemic.”

According to the statement, “To date, in a county with more than 4,500 positive COVID-19 cases, only five Emerald Queen Casino employees have tested positive. In each instance, safety protocols were followed, and we believe none contracted the virus through their jobs, as all affected employees are interviewed to determine their possible contacts, which are often traced back to family and friends.”

A worker who alerted friends on social media of contracting the virus spoke to The News Tribune last week on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. The worker said numerous workers had been sick with the virus. The worker also said that customers who smoked were making conditions more dangerous.

“The sad part is most individuals at the casino use smoking as an excuse to not wear their mask,” the worker told The News Tribune.

In a Wednesday interview with The News Tribune, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department director Anthony Chen, while noting he had no jurisdiction over the casino, said smoking was dangerous for many reasons, among them as an excuse not to wear a mask.

“I think some people may be exploiting that and so, both for practical enforcement reasons, not giving people an excuse to not wear a mask and for just health reasons, I think it would be a great idea for the tribe and the Emerald Queen Casino to consider banning smoking,” Chen said.

The council, while not specifically addressing smoking in the Thursday statement, did include a link to the casino’s COVID-19 protocols, which state: ‘”Smoking will be allowed on the floor and in designated smoking areas. We expect you to keep your mask on as much as possible.”

In Thursday’s statement, the council noted: “EQC management is in regular contact with the Tribe’s public health official for the latest COVID-19 information and areas for improvement.”

The OSHA complaint also alleged that “numerous sick players” have been in attendance, with one worker told to “‘stay quiet because they are playing large amounts of money.”

The Tribal Council, in its statement Thursday, said: “We want our front-line employees to feel safe and speak up when necessary to help make our operations safer. They are on the front lines in this pandemic, and they will get all the support this Council and EQC management can give them.”

The council also cited the measures the casino had taken early in response to the pandemic. It installed Plexiglas barriers and temperature check stations, “contracted for deep cleaning, adopted new safety policies such as mask requirements and trained staff in proper procedures.”

“We cannot let down our guard in the face of COVID-19. ... We all have to work together to keep our community safe,” according to the statement.