Last year, the Trump administration finalized the rollback of a 2016 rule requiring employers to electronically file detailed logs of injuries and illness in the workplace with federal safety regulators. Employers were already supposed to keep the logs on hand, and the rule was designed to help safety inspectors, unions and employers identify workplace hazards across industries and individual companies — including hazards that contribute to the spread of diseases like COVID-19.
However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests opposed the transparency requirement, and President Trump added the rule to the long list of federal regulations he has loosened or tossed out since taking office. Now, the Trump administration is reportedly poised to further gut federal rules for businesses as lobbyists for wealthy employers push back against calls for paid sick leave and enhanced workplace protections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates say enforcement of labor standards has plummeted under Trump, and previous deregulatory moves have already put essential and front line workers in danger of taking unnecessary risks and falling ill.
“Without universal health insurance, without universal sick leave, with a growing gig economy, and without our federal safety agency taking action … we’re all at greater risk for the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), during a virtual press conference on Thursday. “Worker health is public health. The coronavirus and other hazards don’t stay put in any one workplace.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with enforcing workplace safety standards and protecting workers, established the injury and illness reporting rule under President Obama before suspending and gutting the rule under Trump. An ongoing lawsuit filed by public health groups claims the agency jammed the rollback through the regulatory process without clear supporting evidence. Meanwhile, labor advocates say OSHA has sat on the sidelines despite the escalating threat COVID-19 poses to front line workers nationwide. Instead of implementing temporary, emergency standards and investigating a massive backlog of complaints from workers, OSHA has issued a series of “alerts” and voluntary “guidance” for employers.
For example, OSHA and the Labor Department has so far refused to issue emergency safety standards for nurses and health care workers, despite petitions from unions and public health groups. Goldstein-Gelb pointed to slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants linked to hundreds of COVID-19 cases and several deaths that have yet to be seriously penalized by the government. Last week OSHA cut employers some slack and announced that inspectors will take their “good faith” efforts to comply with health and safety standards into “strong consideration” when deciding whether to issue a citation during the COVID-19 outbreak. An employer may fail to protect workers from the coronavirus, but an honest attempt may be enough to avoid a fine. Eugene Scalia, Trump’s labor secretary, previously defended corporate bosses in court and is facing blowback over apparent attempts to trim paid sick leave and unemployment rolls. A spokeswoman for OSHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It is absolutely a disaster that, at the federal level, OHSA has taken a big back seat in protecting workings in this crisis,” Goldstein-Gelb said. “They have every tool possible to be able to initiate an emergency standard, to take action in terms of investigations and enforcement using both existing tools and new tools, and have failed to do so.”
OSHA enforcement actions and workplace inspections continue to fall under Trump despite an uptick in deaths on the job, according to a new report from National COSH. In 2018, 5,520 U.S. workers died from workplace trauma, a nearly 9 percent increase since 2014. The number of OSHA workplace inspections fell by 10.5 percent over the same time period. Fatality rates are rising even faster among workers of color, who are more likely to work under dangerous conditions. From 2014 to 2018, the number of deaths among Latinx and Black workers increased by nearly 20 and 30 percent respectively. Today, OSHA has just 875 inspectors covering about 9 million workplaces.
“Tragically, the higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19 we are seeing in Latinx and African American communities track the higher rates of workplace injuries and fatalities we see in the same populations in the workplace,” said National COSH co-director Jessica Martinez.
Trump’s deregulatory blitz began shortly after he took office with an executive order that requires federal agencies to eliminate two rules for every new rule they implement, making it difficult for regulators to adapt to new challenges posed by the outbreak. By the time the pandemic hit, Trump had already blocked the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which would have helped ensure that federal contracts only go to employers who follow basic labor and employment laws, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Now, the administration says further deregulation is necessary to blunt the outbreak’s damage to the economy and hopes to grant liability waivers that would clear businesses of legal responsibility if their employees get sick or die from COVID-19. Meanwhile, business groups successfully lobbied the White House to exempt large employers from paid sick leave requirements in Congress’s initial COVID-19 stimulus package.
With a friend in the White House, powerful industry groups have pushed back against state and local attempts to establish paid sick leave requirements and raise the minimum wage, forcing low-paid workers to choose between showing up sick and losing much-needed income. Horacio Ruiz, a server at the Capital Grille in Pittsburgh, told reporters on Thursday that he’s seen co-workers and even managers come into work when they are sick and should be at home. Ruiz worked with Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United to pass a paid sick leave law in Pittsburgh five years ago, but a legal challenge filed by an affiliate of the powerful National Restaurant Association held the law up in court.
“Our city council passed a paid sick leave law five years ago, but the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association fought us in court, so it didn’t go into effect until March of this year,” Ruiz said. “If the restaurant owners didn’t fight us for so long, workers in Pittsburgh would have had more paid sick leave credit when this pandemic began.”
As the pandemic continues, Goldstein-Gelb said her organization receives “frequent” reports from workers who face retaliation for refusing to work in unsafe conditions or stay home due to a weakened immune system or a sick loved one. Teófilo L. Reyes, the deputy research director at ROC United, said some employers are doing the right thing despite the deregulatory atmosphere created by Trump. For example, the corporation behind restaurant chains such as Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse agreed to provide accrued paid sick leave to hourly employees after facing public pressure. However, other large employers are enjoying the federal exemption, and Reyes said that makes any workplace that remains open more dangerous.
“If someone is sick, their incentive is to keep quiet about it as long as possible, because they are not allowed to take time off to take care of themselves,” Reyes said in an interview.
Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, Ruiz said he and other restaurant employees have already spent their federal stimulus checks and what sick pay they had on rent and groceries. Restaurants in the city remain closed due to the outbreak.
“I do not know what will happen to us if this pandemic continues for a longer period of time,” Ruiz said.