Worker protections are critical during the pandemic — yet the Trump administration has issued only voluntary guidance instead of enforceable rules.
As states and municipalities relax shelter-in-place orders, the nation seems to be racing to get the economy back to something resembling the pre-pandemic era. Restaurants, malls, cinemas, day care centers and retail stores are reopening sooner than most medical professionals think is wise.
The risk is obvious to many businesses that stayed open as the coronavirus swept the country. Meat processing plants, for instance, have had among the highest rates of infection. Employees continued to show up to work at many such facilities, even as thousands of their colleagues tested positive for the virus. By one estimate, more than 27,000 workers in meatpacking have tested positive for the coronavirus, up sharply from 17,000 just last month.
Yet the federal agency meant to protect America’s workers continues to sit on the sidelines. Even as state after state reopens, and the number of infections continues to climb, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has so far refused to give employers clear rules to follow, allowing those that neglect worker safety to operate without fear of government penalty.
For months now, OSHA has relied on general guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, without making them mandatory, meaning businesses face no threat of enforcement action for noncompliance.
The courts have offered workers no relief — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia this month dismissed a lawsuit by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that would have compelled OSHA to issue emergency rules for worker protection, saying the agency can determine its own standards.
The result has been millions of essential employees forced to work under hazardous conditions. Now that threat is spreading to nonessential workers, too.
OSHA’s top administrator, Loren Sweatt, explained during a congressional hearing last month that general guidelines, rather than rules, allow the agency and businesses to adapt more quickly as the scientific and public understanding of the coronavirus changes. “Regulations are very cumbersome to revise,” Ms. Sweatt said. But even when it has received credible complaints of unsafe conditions, OSHA has failed to act. Workers at a Nebraska JBS beef processing plant alleged in April that they and their colleagues remained in close quarters during lunchtime and in the locker room despite “a number of positive cases of Covid-19.” OSHA didn’t inspect the site and issued no citations; some 300 workers contracted the virus.
OSHA has received more than 5,000 complaints related to the coronavirus since the pandemic began. It has issued only a single citation, to a Georgia nursing home for failing to report employee hospitalizations within 24 hours.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 1.3 million laborers in grocery stores, meatpacking, retail and other sectors, estimates that 29,000 of its members have contracted the coronavirus and 225 have died from Covid-19.
Even before the pandemic, OSHA was too overwhelmed to meet its mandate. Its current number of inspectors, about 860 to cover the whole nation, is 240 fewer than it had in 1975. The agency has conducted 5,000 fewer inspections per year on average than it did during the prior two presidential administrations, according to data from the National Employment Law Project, a labor-friendly nonprofit. Nearly half of OSHA’s leadership positions remain unfilled, according to the project’s data.
The need for enforceable rules specific to the coronavirus has taken on greater urgency as states move to fully reopen. In its lawsuit, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. had argued “infections and death among workers will rise” if the agency doesn’t draw up emergency temporary standards. And indeed, Texas and Florida, populous states that were early to open, have had a record number of new positive virus cases in recent days. Without a federal standard, city officials in Texas are pleading with Gov. Greg Abbott for the authority to mandate face masks in public settings. Schools and summer camps, too, will begin opening up over the next few months with no clear mandates on how to ensure safety, needlessly putting workers, children and their families at greater risk.
Congress has done little to help businesses with clarity or workers with protections. When the House passed its latest stimulus package linked to the crisis, it included requirements that OSHA adopt an emergency standard for enforcing safety measures related to Covid-19. But the Senate has not voted on that bill, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holds out for special legal protections for businesses that could otherwise be sued for failing to provide safe workplaces. That means, in its current form, the stimulus bill looks likely to fail, further delaying worker protections.
The coronavirus crisis has put more than 30 million Americans out of work. The lucky ones who are still on the job or who can hope to return to one soon deserve to know that the federal government wants to protect their health as much as their bosses’ economic well-being. OSHA can help.