Unions eager for swift action from new Labor secretary
Newly confirmed Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is set to inherit an agency struggling to confront a host of challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Walsh, a former union leader who most recently served as the mayor of Boston, is expected to come under immediate pressure from labor groups to ramp up workplace safety standards following COVID-19 breakouts at food processing plants and similar settings.
Worker advocates say the next few months will be crucial as more businesses open up without a fully vaccinated adult population. And they want to see swift action from Labor Department agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Millions of workers still do not have the strong COVID-19 protections they need to be safe at work. Marty Walsh’s strong leadership will be needed to urgently issue a strong, comprehensive OSHA COVID-19 emergency temporary standard to set workplace safety rules, accompanied by strong enforcement to ensure workers are protected,” said Rebecca Reindel, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director.
Reindel said new rules and strong enforcement are “essential to President Biden’s promise to protect workers from COVID-19.”
Chief among those requests is a desire for an emergency temporary standard that imposes new workplace rules for dealing with shorter-term challenges like the coronavirus.
President Biden issued an executive order for OSHA to consider an emergency temporary standard by March 15, a deadline the agency failed to meet.
“Even though there’s going to be vaccination and the president said he expects everyone who wants to get it to get it by summer, that’s still months away,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney with the left-leaning Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Unions and Democrats bashed the Labor Department last year when businesses started to reopen after the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, saying the agency was falling short on prioritizing worker safety when the virus was still spreading quickly across the country.
They consistently called for OSHA to issue an emergency standard, but the agency only issued a nonbinding guidance.
OSHA has received thousands of complaints pertaining to COVID-19 over the past year, an uptick Democrats deemed as disturbing.
“OSHA is the first order and Biden has said he wants new rules to be issued, so I think that’s the first big thing,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University.
Walsh, who was confirmed Monday in a 68-29 vote, is expected to issue a new temporary standard, and he indicated during his confirmation hearing that he intends to address certain COVID-19 disparities as well.
“To the extent that employers are federal contractors, the [Labor Department] does have the ability to implement rules that could be designed to address the sex-based or race-based disparity that we’ve seen on the impacts of COVID,” said Christopher Feudo, co-chair of the COVID-19 task force at the law firm Foley Hoag LLP.
The pandemic’s impact on gig workers is also likely to increase pressure on Walsh to provide more protections for independent contractors.
“There’s major pressure to … cover them across the board, give them not just the right to organize but also give them protections under labor law and employment law,” Bronfenbrenner said.
That would be a near-180 from the previous administration’s policies.
“The Trump administration took an approach that was hands off and allowed companies to classify people the way they wanted to classify them. You can expect to see a lot of pressure on President Biden and Secretary Walsh to address the effects of the gig economy for workers,” Feudo said.
Walsh is also expected to take what action he can on aspects of the PRO Act, a House-passed union bill that faces an uphill climb in the Senate.
Democrats and the White House are under pressure to deliver on the legislation, and experts said there are some steps Walsh can take in the short term.
“A lot of people have talked about the PRO Act and federal labor law. He can’t legislate … but for federal contractors, you could see PRO Act reforms implemented,” Feudo said.
The PRO Act would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights, while strengthening protections for employees against retaliation. It would also make changes to the union election process, bolster collective bargaining agreements and go after right-to-work laws.
Feudo said that implementing rules for federal contractors could be used as a selling point for passing the PRO Act for all workers.
“If you can have these things happening in a microcosm of the economy and be able to show that the sky isn’t falling, as opponents of various pieces of legislation would have you believe, that helps the Biden administration’s argument in getting these reforms passed,” he added.