Employees of a private Wisconsin company owned by two of the largest Republican donors in the US have faced significantly higher rates of Covid-19 infection and have submitted numerous complaints about workplace safety to federal authorities, according to a Guardian investigation of Uline.
Dick and Liz Uihlein, the billionaire founders of the office supplies and packaging company Uline who were once dubbed the “most powerful conservatives you’ve never heard of,” have criticized Wisconsin stay-at-home orders and, according to Some employees fear, they used their considerable political influence to try to defy safety rules in the state.
An internal document seen by The Guardian shows that at least 14% of Uline’s corporate workforce has tested positive for Covid-19 since last April, compared to 8.7% of the population in Kenosha County, where it is located. the company’s corporate office.
Nearly 19% of the company’s Illinois workplace has tested positive, 23% of its workforce in California and nearly 27% of its workforce in Texas.
A complaint filed with federal worker safety regulators, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, received in July 2020, outlined hazards in the workplace, including: failure to adhere to distancing guidelines Social; lax use of the mask in the office; symptomatic employees are allowed to continue working without covering their face; and employees are forced to return to work in close contact with others, even when working from home is feasible.
In one case, the complaint also noted that the company hosted a “lunch and learning” meeting with former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. A photograph from the meeting showed employees without a mask sitting together listening to Walker, a Republican, also standing without a mask.
Uline declined to comment.
In response to Osha, documents seen by The Guardian show that Uline told federal regulators in its July response that it had maintained its “office culture” but allowed employees to work remotely “wherever possible. “.
The company also said it had made special accommodations for people who were considered “high risk” under the CDC guidelines “on a case-by-case basis.”
Uline also said it “encouraged” the use of masks in common areas and when traveling in the building and that disposable masks had been made available to guests and employees “free of charge.”
Osha said in a letter to the employee who filed the complaint that she felt “the case may be closed” based on Uline’s response.
Current and former employees interviewed by The Guardian describe a work environment they believe takes a random approach to safety, and one in which the conservative political views of the founders, including their opposition to Wisconsin stay-at-home orders , which Uline said was compliant. by – permeating the work environment.
Uline corporate office workers are also required to follow strict dress rules, including, for women, making sure their suit jacket is closed when walking through the building and wearing pantyhose with skirts from November to April.
“The official HR material will say ‘distance’, but most people don’t really distance themselves. Liz has meetings without masks, “said an employee who agreed to speak to The Guardian.
“I honestly feel like Liz and Dick are so powerful that they can do whatever they want. I feel like the government can’t even protect people here, ”the employee said.
Part of the feeling of helplessness, the person said, comes from knowing how politically powerful the Uihlein are. The couple donated $ 80 million to Republican candidates and causes in the 2020 election, including to support Donald Trump’s campaign.
Richard Uihlein has almost single-handedly funded an Illinois-based political action committee with a donation of $ 24.5 million in the 2020 election cycle. The group, called Restoration Pac, spent nearly $ 19 million attacking the Democratic candidates in the last electoral cycle, in eight races. Seven of the eight Democrats the group attacked, including Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, won their races. Restoration PAC lists four top priorities on its website: “stop antifa,” withdraw funds from Planned Parenthood, “support the police,” and implement voter identification laws.
The Guardian previously reported that the Uihleins lobbied against Wisconsin’s stay-at-home rules during the earlier stage of the pandemic, claiming the crisis had been “overrated.” The couple subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. Among other actions, the couple circulated a petition to employees that the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, be removed from office. At the time, last April, Liz Uihlein told The Guardian in a brief telephone interview that only 15 Uline employees had tested positive for the virus.
Experts closely following Wisconsin politics say the Uihleins have been a powerful force shaping state politics, including supporting Republican state lawmakers and former Governor Walker, whose allies now serve as judges in the supreme court of the state.
“During the pandemic, we heard many complaints that the public health guidance was not being taken as seriously as it should have and that employees were being told they had to go to work in person, even though they knew they knew they could. they do their work remotely, “said Melissa Baldauff, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Governor Evers.
She added: “They were definitely one of the loudest voices that opposed the governor’s efforts to keep people safe … It’s a pretty good strategy if you can afford it, buy the legislature, and buy the [state] Supreme Court. That way, you are guaranteed a win, no matter what. They basically got two of the three branches of government. “