Building back worker safety under Biden
Under President Trump, the protection of workers in this country suffered badly.
While corporations and the wealthy got tax cuts, federal worker protection programs saw staff cuts. Strategies to deter wage theft were undermined and new rules making it easier for companies to avoid responsibility for their workers were penned. The right to organize, anti-discrimination efforts and access to health care all took hits. Then, COVID-19 arrived.
Early on, as essential workers risked their lives, the Trump administration Department of Labor (DOL) sat on its hands. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued suggestions to employers about how they might protect their workers from getting infected with the virus, but that’s all. It could have revived an infectious disease standard that had been left on the shelf — and which would have required employers to mitigate the hazards of airborne transmission of this deadly disease — but it didn’t. Now, a year into the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of workers have gotten sick and thousands — health caregivers, grocery store clerks, bus drivers and warehouse workers — have died. In the meatpacking and food processing industries alone, almost 75,000 workers have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 300 have died.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic sheds light on just a few of its many failures to adequately safeguard the country’s workers. From February through December 2020, OSHA received more than 12,000 COVID-19-related complaints. The vast majority of these were handled informally, with only a small fraction receiving on-site inspections. The report makes clear that OSHA doesn’t know whether these informal resolutions and “remote” inspections actually ensured that workers were properly protected. Likewise, because of weak and inappropriate illness reporting requirements, OSHA obtained flawed and unhelpful data, kneecapping efforts to strategically target resources where COVID-19 exposures were highest.
Enter the Biden administration. The vaccination campaign has now begun in earnest, but COVID-19-caused workplace illness and death isn’t yet a thing of the past. While some in the business community might wish to look away from the mounting death toll, the Biden team is staring it down. The day after his inauguration, President Biden issued an executive order calling worker health and safety a “moral imperative.” He mandated new guidance within two weeks, ramped-up enforcement efforts and, if deemed necessary, promulgation of an emergency temporary standard to address COVID-19 hazards by March 15. Also, personnel with lifetime careers devoted to worker safety and health were quickly appointed to leadership positions.
OSHA under Biden has its work cut out for it, but it’s already made strides. New, amplified guidance was issued on Jan. 29. It calls for measures that include workplace COVID-19 prevention programs that engage workers and their representatives at every stage of the plans’ development and implementation. It makes clear that workers should be educated and trained about hazards and their prevention in a language they understand, can’t be retaliated against for raising workplace safety concerns and ought not be punished because of the need to quarantine on account of COVID-19 illness or exposure to it.
Worker advocates inside and outside government know there is much more to do. Prompt issuance of an emergency temporary standard that requires employers to properly address COVID-19 hazards — and not simply consider addressing them, as Trump-era recommendations did — is critically important, because COVID-19 is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Improved ventilation in workplaces to stem the spread demands greater attention and action. OSHA inspectors need to get back out in the field in far greater numbers and with all necessary equipment to keep them safe from COVID-19 as they do their job ensuring the protection of others. Workers need guidance on what kinds of COVID-19-related conditions would justify their protected refusal to work. OSHA’s whistleblower program needs to be significantly fortified. And immigrant workers need meaningful assurances that when they raise workplace issues employer retaliation — including threats of deportation — won’t be tolerated.
With all the challenges it faces, OSHA is back in the game. It’s not a moment too soon for workers to get the protections they lacked these past four years. And, with daily exposure to hazards on the job made plain by the suffering COVID-19 has wrought, there’s been no better time to make worker safety the high national priority it’s always deserved to be.
Michael Felsen is an Access to Justice fellow with Justice at Work. He recently concluded a 39-year career as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor, serving as its New England Regional Solicitor from 2010 to 2018.
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