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First 100 days: Advocates say Biden should act quickly to boost workplace safety

OSHA has been widely criticized for its limited investigation of workplace complaints during the pandemic.

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden ripped into the Trump administration’s handling of workplace inspections during the COVID-19 pandemic. And he endorsed a range of policies that would aid food system workers, from raising raising frontline worker wages to releasing enforceable workplace standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Now, within his first 100 days in office, President Biden should make good on his promises, workplace advocates say, by establishing emergency standards to curb the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces and increasing employer oversight. He should also fill crucial senior positions in OSHA left vacant by the Trump administration. OSHA has been criticized for failing to investigate scores of complaints from workers exposed to COVID-19 on the job.

“They have to have, on day one, a deputy assistant secretary for OSHA in place [and] a political deputy,” says Debbie Berkowitz, head of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and a former senior adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration. “And they have to issue an emergency temporary standard for COVID within four weeks.”

Biden’s OSHA should also launch a national program emphasizing enforcement at meat and poultry plants, as well as large farms, says Berkowitz.

The emergency temporary standard, which congressional Democrats have tried to pass for months, would create enforceable requirements for how employers should protect workers from the spread of COVID-19. So far, OSHA has only published voluntary, nonenforceable guidance for employers, including meatpackers. A few states, including California and Virginia, have passed their own emergency standards in the absence of federal action.

Biden has already indicated that he may move quickly on workplace safety. In his emergency coronavirus plan, released last week, he called on OSHA “to issue a COVID-19 Protection Standard that covers a broad set of workers, so that workers not typically covered by OSHA, like many public workers on the frontlines, also receive protection from unsafe working conditions and retaliation.”

OSHA has been widely criticized for its limited investigation of workplace complaints during the pandemic. A recent Reuters investigation found that thousands of workers contracted the virus at dozens of facilities where OSHA had declined to investigate worker complaints of lax COVID-19 precautions. Some states that have their own workplace safety offices have also levied more significant fines against food system employers for violations during the pandemic than OSHA.

The agency has been chronically understaffed, and at the beginning of the pandemic had its lowest number of investigators ever. During the first few months of the pandemic, OSHA received 30% more whistleblower complaints than during the same period in 2019, according to a report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General.

Labor advocates say Biden also should stand with congressional Democrats against attempts by Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to grant companies immunity from some worker lawsuits regarding how the pandemic was handled. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said that he will continue to fight for the so-called immunity shield this year, even as he and his party lose control of the Senate.

Around 1,300 such lawsuits related to COVID-19 have been filed, many from workers at food- and meat-processing plants seeking safer conditions or damages for workers who have contracted or died from the virus. This type of litigation would be blocked by the immunity shield.

“I had never seen the Democratic caucus remain as fundamentally united as they did on this issue,” says Remington A. Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen, of last year’s battles over whether to include the immunity clause in stimulus packages. “And they were in the minority when that happened. So I do imagine that unity will remain.”

Gregg says workers must be able to hold companies liable for workplace safety violations in order for the pandemic to be resolved.

“We won’t get out of the COVID crisis if we continue to have incredible spread in the workplace,” he says. “And one way to ensure that we don’t have spread in the workplace is to have robust enforcement, which we’re not having right now.”

Dozens of organizations have opposed the liability shield, including the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Farmworker Association of Florida, and the Environmental Working Group. They argued in a letter to congressional leaders in August that the shield would “introduce new anxieties to an already highly anxious public … When workplaces are not properly protected, patients, customers, clients, and the community are all at risk.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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