LYNN — The owner of Liberty Tax Service is facing $136,532 in penalties for COVID-19 related violations, including prohibiting her employees and customers from wearing masks.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Ariana Murrell-Rosario this week after opening an inspection into her 175 Lewis St. firm on March 17.
The company is known for the costumes worn by its staff during tax season. Employees wear Statue of Liberty outfits and dance outside the company while holding signs that read: “Honk if you love liberty.”
“This employer’s willful refusal to implement basic safeguards places her employees at an increased risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Galen Blanton, who works out of the company’s Boston office. “Stopping the spread of this virus requires businesses’ support in implementing COVID-19 prevention programs, and ensuring that staff and customers wear face coverings and maintain physical distance from each other.”
When contacted on Wednesday, Murrell-Rosario did not deny the allegations. Instead, she vigorously defended her company’s mask-banning policy, saying that it was part of a broad set of protocols that she has developed over the last 15 years. Those protocols, she said, are based on guidelines set by the National Institute For Safety and Health (NIOSH).
“I knew that we wouldn’t let the public come in here with masks,” Murrell-Rosario said. “Why? Because the masks have high loads of various pathogens on them. This is a small tax office. That puts us at risk. There can be HIV virus on those masks, Herpes virus on those masks, HEP-C virus on those masks.”
To support her reasoning, she showed The Item a chart that she had prepared, which lists different methods of protecting against hazards in an upside-down pyramid, beginning with elimination and descending into substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and lastly, personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We like to focus on the top tier of the hierarchy,” she said, gesturing the the chart with her pen. “As you can see, the least effective means of protecting workers are PPE. This is a scientifically-proven methodology for occupational health. We’ve been doing this for a long time so I consider myself a bit of an expert on this.”
She proceeded to display another pyramid, entitled the “Hierarchy of Susceptibility,” which she said proves that COVID-19 is one of the easiest diseases to kill. The best way to kill the virus, Murrell-Rosario said, is through air sanitization via use of ammonium salts called Quats, which she sprays throughout the room.
The business originally handed out disposable masks to customers until employees began having allergic reactions to the material in them, she said. Now guests are told to remove their masks at the door and place them in a sealed baggie. If someone does come into the office with a mask, Murrell-Rosario sprays the office with some water from a bottle that sits on her desk.
She is adamant that her methods have yielded positive results, a conclusion she based on her employees remaining healthy over the past year. No employee has become sick over that time period, Murrell-Rosario claimed.
Chevonne White, a seasonal employee for Liberty, said she feels safer without wearing a mask in the office.
“When the pandemic first started, I was complying with the mask mandates,” said White. “Over time, I started getting runny noses (and) having difficulty breathing. I realized I was getting sicker wearing the mask than not. Coming here and being able to work without a mask has helped me be productive.”
However, should a worker be less inclined to follow the policy, Murrell-Rosario implied that there would be consequences.
“The business has a policy, so we’re going to follow that policy,” she said. “I would tell the employee that this is our policy and that we’re following the federal standards and the NIOSH hierarchy.”
OSHA opened its inspection following a referral from the Division of Labor Standards of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which Murrell-Rosario speculates came as a result of complaints from customers. Liberty was cited by the labor department on Tuesday.
According to the citation, Liberty Tax Service was fined due to its anti-mask policy, which was put in place “despite a statewide mask order that mandates the business to require customers to wear masks.”
The business was also cited for requiring employees to work within 6 feet of one another, failing to provide adequate means of ventilation at the workplace, and failing to implement controls such as physical barriers, pre-shift screening of employees, enhanced cleaning and other methods to reduce the potential for person-to-person transmission of the virus.
Liberty Tax Service has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Murrell-Rosario plans to contest the decision, and is confident about her chances.
“In the end, the judge is going to follow the law,” she said. “The judge is bound to follow the law.”
Guthrie Scrimgeour can be reached at [email protected].