Business & Lobbying

COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration

Greg Nash

A surge in coronavirus-related workplace complaints is fueling criticism from unions and Democratic lawmakers that the Labor Department is ill-equipped to ensure workers are safe as more businesses reopen.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the Labor Department, has received more than 5,000 complaints pertaining to COVID-19, principal deputy assistant secretary Loren Sweatt told a House panel Thursday. Those filings have pushed the number of complaints well beyond where they were at this point last year.

The Trump administration argues OSHA is more than capable of ensuring workplace safety as nonessential businesses bring back employees, but former officials say the agency was in a weakened condition heading into the crisis.

“We’re facing a massive worker safety crisis. OSHA did not have adequate resources to assure the safety and health of American workers before this crisis began,” said former OSHA Administrator David Michaels, who served during the Obama administration.

“OSHA’s failure to take stronger actions will result in more workers being made sick and killed by this virus,” said Michaels, who is now a public health professor at George Washington University.

The agency has been without an administrator since Michaels left in January 2017. Sweatt has been the top official since Michaels departed.

OSHA has received 18,283 complaints since Oct. 1, the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year. At this time last year it had received 16,021 complaints.

Of the 5,000 coronavirus-related complaints, the agency said it has closed 3,131 of those cases and conducted about 375 inspections.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Labor Department, called the uptick in worker complaints “disturbing” and noted that the increase came while nonessential businesses have all been closed.

“Unfortunately, the Trump administration has shifted OSHA’s focus away from enforcement and worker protection to compliance assistance for businesses,” DeLauro said. “OSHA’s approach of issuing voluntary guidance and scaling back enforcement has sent a signal to businesses that they can expect a slap on the wrist at most if any wrongdoing occurs.”

DeLauro secured an additional $100 million for OSHA in the House-passed $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, but the measure has been “dead on arrival” in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“But this problem is about more than just resources — it is also about the Trump administration’s willingness to take action to keep workers safe,” she told The Hill.

For unions and workplace safety groups, the number of inspections is woefully inadequate given the crisis at hand. There are also too few inspectors.

“OSHA does not have enough inspectors to thoroughly investigate all of the complaints and they do not have the regulations in place to keep all workers safe in the face of this pandemic,” said AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Rebecca Reindel.

The roster of compliance officers has been steadily declining over the past decade.

The number of federal workplace safety inspectors went from 1,016 in 2010 to 952 in 2016. At the beginning of last year it was 875, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Sweatt told the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections on Thursday that OSHA has been “actively trying” to hire more investigators since she started in mid-2017. She blamed the shortage on “unprecedented competition with the private sector.”

“Even before COVID-19, OSHA had enough inspectors to visit every workplace in the U.S. once every 165 years. Now with thousands of workers terrified about a deadly exposure that’s present in their workplaces, OSHA is not doing nearly enough,” Michaels said.

Meatpacking plants in particular have become coronavirus hot spots. More than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 have been tied to plants owned by Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS. At least 63 workers have died.

So far, only one coronavirus-related inspection has resulted in a citation from OSHA.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the Labor Department’s internal watchdog on Thursday to investigate OSHA’s response to the pandemic, noting that since Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, OSHA-issued citations have been down nearly 70 percent overall.

A Labor Department spokesperson pushed back on that criticism, saying the citation process can be lengthy.

“OSHA conducts thorough inspections that are based on the unique qualities and complexities of each case, and they can take weeks and even months to complete,” the spokesperson said. “The agency has up to six months to complete an inspection and issue citations, but tries to complete it sooner if possible.”

Some former OSHA officials say the agency should be taking tougher action more quickly.

“[OSHA has] received complaints from terrified workers that their companies are not following CDC guidelines — and all OSHA has done is send a letter to the company apprising them of the complaint – sometimes waiting a week to get it out,” said Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA during the Obama administration.

“When OSHA fails, there are consequences: Workers get sick and many die,” said Berkowitz, who is now the worker health and safety program director at NELP.

A Labor Department spokesperson responded to Berkowitz’s comment, saying OSHA has kept workers safe.

“To suggest that OSHA will not fulfill its enforcement duties is to mislead employers about their duty to comply with pre-existing workplace safety standards. Allegations that OSHA has failed to protect workers are simply untrue,” the spokesperson said.

In addition to oversight steps like Warren’s call for an investigation, congressional Democrats have turned to legislation in their attempt to prod OSHA to take action.

The House-passed $3 trillion bill would direct OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard within seven days. Democrats, unions and worker rights advocates have called for such a standard, but OSHA has instead issued guidance.

OSHA can authorize an emergency standard if it determines workers are in grave danger. That standard can only be challenged in a U.S. court of appeals. OSHA guidance, on the other hand, allows for flexibility and lets the administration officials change it as they see fit.

“We need clear, effective and comprehensive requirements to ensure employees who continue to come into work across the country are kept safe,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Labor Department. “Now more than ever, we need to make sure corporations are following the law and doing everything possible to protect their employees from this virus — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s what we need in order to reopen the economy safely.”

But with coronavirus relief legislation in Congress at a standstill, the AFL-CIO has turned to the courts. The union filed a petition last week in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard. The request is still pending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has insisted that any coronavirus relief legislation with aid for state and local governments must also include a liability shield for employers, a stance backed by the White House and business groups but vehemently opposed by unions.

In the meantime, OSHA argues it has been protecting workers by providing guidance to employers on best practices for handling COVID-19. But to government watchdogs, regulatory agencies like OSHA need to be focusing more on enforcement, especially during a pandemic.

“It’s unfathomable that months into this pandemic, OSHA has still failed to take a single binding action to protect workers from the coronavirus,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen. “If OSHA won’t step in when workplaces around the country are seeing outbreaks and deaths, when will it?”

Updated at 9:21 a.m.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Elizabeth Warren JBS Labor Department Mitch McConnell NELP OSHA Pandemic Patty Murray Public Citizen Rosa DeLauro Smithfield Foods Tyson Foods Workplace safety
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