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This Labor Day, workers deserve protection and a Clean New Deal

This Labor Day, workers deserve protection and a Clean New Deal
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It is Labor Day weekend and we’re still in the throes of a deadly pandemic.

Fueled in no small part by catastrophic leadership failures in the White House, more than 186,000 lives have been lost so far from COVID-19, and the tally increases each day. It includes thousands of workers — bus drivers, grocery store cashiers, meatpacking plant and health care workers — who have effectively been abandoned by the Trump administration. Its efforts to protect workers from the perils of COVID-19 have been worse than anemic. 

Where the Labor Department could have issued an enforceable emergency standard requiring all employers to proactively address the threat posed by coronavirus, it offered toothless recommendations instead. Where OSHA could have ramped up its inspection staff — now more than 200 fewer than it had in 1975 — to meet this once-in-a-century challenge to worker safety, it benched the meager number of inspectors who remain. In the face of thousands of COVID-19-related worker complaints received, OSHA issued citations that could be counted with the fingers on one hand.

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Workers in the United States deserve better. With the federal government failing in its duty that’s enshrined in law — to design and enforce workplace protections — workers and their advocates across the country have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve pressed states like Virginia to fill the void with new state regulations and pressured employers to provide the safeguards they need.

But this Labor Day, as we honor our workers — including especially our essential workers, who are disproportionately people of color and who have literally put their lives on the line — we must continue to demand the kind of federal response we should have seen when the pandemic first, menacingly, arrived. 

This includes far more robust testing and contact tracing than this administration has enabled thus far. As more businesses reopen, it means enacting the long overdue emergency temporary standard that will actually require employers to implement virus transmission abatement measures — like six-foot distancing, appropriate mask-wearing or personal protective equipment and adequate cleaning and sanitation — in all workspaces. It also means enforcing those safety requirements with meaningful sanctions for violation, and hiring and training a new cadre of workplace safety monitors and inspectors. With today’s staffing levels at OSHA, any given establishment can expect to be inspected once every 165 years. If we’re serious about curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, we need to do a whole lot better than that. 

Plus, with what we’ve learned in recent months about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, we can’t stop there. While the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control haven’t yet delivered a full-throated endorsement, there’s growing recognition that in indoor spaces, controls that include social distancing, mask-wearing, handwashing and surface sanitizing likely aren’t enough to stem the spread of the virus. Many scientists are convinced that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted not only in larger droplets that face coverings are intended to block, but also in smaller, “airborne” or “aerosol” micro-droplets. These smaller droplets are carried in the air, to distances well beyond six feet, and — particularly in indoor spaces — present a virus transmission threat.

As schools begin to reopen, parents, teachers and other school staff have begun to sound the alarm, demanding that schools have adequate ventilation systems, designed to either purify the air through filtration or dilute it by pumping in lots of fresh air, or both. The CDC has apparently heard the call: in its guidance on “Operating Schools During COVID-19,” updated on Sept. 1, it urges school administrators to “consider ventilation system upgrades or improvements and other steps” to provide clean air and decrease contaminants. The same principle applies to all indoor workplaces.

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In late August, the American Industrial Hygiene Association made clear that engineering controls that can keep infectious aerosols at very low levels indoors offer “the most reliable way to reduce the risk of disease spread.” It goes on to explain that scientifically proven methods to control the spread of airborne diseases, including enhanced ventilation with outdoor air and high efficiency filtration, need to be applied far more widely.

What this all means is that during this pandemic, masks and social distancing in all workspaces are important, but they’re not enough. Workers and students, customers and teachers, all need proper ventilation too.  

This needs to get done, and it needs to start now. Call it the Clean (Indoor Air) New Deal: not a substitute for the Green New Deal, but a complement to it. It is another piece of the critical infrastructure work that cries out for attention as we stare down not only global warming, but also this pandemic — and its successors. Because, unfortunately, this isn’t the last one. We need to prepare now for the next crisis. 

So for Labor Day 2020, let’s honor our workers by acknowledging some truths. First, that in the face of COVID-19, the Trump administration has turned its back on them, with harrowing results. Second, that our workers deserve federal enforceable pandemic workplace safety standards, nationwide in scope and enough inspectors to ensure that every employer is paying attention. And third, that proper ventilation in indoor workspaces — in schools, factories, shops and offices — needs immediate and sustained attention.

COVID-19, like climate change, presents challenges we don’t have the luxury to ignore. The wellbeing of our workers, our teachers, our children and our communities are on the line. This Labor Day, the call to action is loud and clear. Let’s listen and let’s act.

Michael Felsen left federal service after 39 years as an attorney with the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor, concluding his career as New England regional solicitor from 2010-2018. His office was charged with enforcing federal worker protection laws, including The Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.