A new Morning Consult poll finds that nearly three-quarters of all voters — including 63 percent of Republicans — agree that COVID-19 testing should be required for workers returning to their jobs as states lift stay-at-home orders and businesses reopen, but don’t expect to see any such requirement come from the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress. The GOP has consistently sided with employers over issues of workplace safety as pro-business forces push to reopen the country and jump-start the economy, which Trump sees as crucial to his reelection.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership in the Senate announced on Tuesday legislation that would provide businesses with legal protection from lawsuits if their employees or customers get sick on the job, and they have vowed numerous times in recent weeks to hold up the next COVID-19 aid package in order to pass secure protections for employers.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Labor Department was recently sued by unions after ignoring multiple petitions demanding regulators issue enforceable safety standards to protect those working during the pandemic, despite outcry from nurses and other essential workers who have suffered under shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) since the beginning of the outbreak. The department’s enforcement arm, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has instead issued “guidance,” fact sheets and pamphlets, keeping in line with Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
While McConnell cautioned that the COVID-19 liability legislation would not provide employers with absolute “immunity” from lawsuits, labor advocates say employers in a number of industries have already failed to protect workers from COVID-19. Workers face steep barriers to holding their employers accountable for unsafe conditions, and those barriers have only grown under Trump and Eugene Scalia, the president’s notoriously right-wing labor secretary.
Over the past two months, workers have filed thousands of complaints with OSHA — 4,326 as of Tuesday and thousands more with state-level agencies — but OSHA has not issued a single citation against an employer, according to reports. Truthout contacted the agency’s press office about citations on Tuesday and has not received any information to the contrary.
“For every worker working right now, this administration has made it clear that they don’t care about worker safety and health, what they care about is protecting employers’ — big companies’ — profits and protecting them from liability for negligence,” said Debbie Berkowitz, the Worker Safety and Health program director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in an interview. “The GOP is now racing to make sure that employers don’t have to provide any protections.”
Berkowitz said Scalia, who spent much of his career as a corporate lawyer fighting protections for workers and defending big businesses in court, had already “completely weakened” OSHA before the pandemic hit. The Labor Department then “abandoned” its mission to protect workers as COVID-19 spread nationwide.
“Workers need mandates to make employers to protect them, and under Scalia, in a stunning departure from any other time in OSHA’s history, OSHA is issuing no mandates, no required protections that need to implemented,” Berkowitz said.
Peter Dooley, the Safety and Health coordinator for the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, said the thousands of complaints filed with OSHA are just one indicator that workers are in desperate need of better protection from COVID-19. Across the country, workers in health care, retail, meatpacking and other industries have held strikes, protests or simply refused to work due to a lack of protections against COVID-19.
While Dooley said there have been improvements at a number of workplaces since the outbreak began, many of those changes are the result of workers raising red flags, organizing and making changes themselves. Unfortunately, there are no centralized efforts to track how many workers are getting sick and dying across various industries.
“It’s interesting that it’s become so popular to be characterizing essential workers as heroes, and yet on the other hand the heroes are asking for help in so many ways in terms of better protections on the job, and they are largely being ignored [when] filing complaints and basically urgently calling for help,” Dooley told Truthout.
OSHA has closed 3,291 cases that resulted from COVID-related complaints as of Tuesday, and Dooley and Berkowitz agreed that enforcement has been informal and weak at best. Instead of fining employers and mandating changes, OSHA inspectors make a phone call or send a letter to an employer to discuss the complaint. Some employers may clean up their acts as a result, but there is little incentive for others to follow suit.
“Obviously OSHA doesn’t have the resources to be in every workplace at once,” Dooley said. “But they can be sending the message by doing strong enforcement and having that be public record, that there are repercussions for employers that don’t implement a workplace health and safety plan that evaluates workers’ exposure to COVID-19 and is doing everything reasonable to protect workers from this deadly hazard.”
Scalia defended the Labor Department’s approach to the pandemic after coming under fire from unions, arguing that workers are already protected under existing laws and standards, and the COVID-19 “guidance” issued by his agency allows employers to remain flexible as new facts emerge about the pandemic. Advocates say facts about the pandemic speak for themselves.
Nurses began reporting severe shortages of PPE early on and demanded that OSHA issue enforceable safety standards for health care, but those never materialized. In a national survey of nurses conducted by National Nurses United, a health care union, 87 percent of respondents said they were forced to reuse a single-use respirator or mask with a COVID-19 patient as recently as late April and early May. Reusing PPE is a dangerous practice that can increase the risk of exposure for nurses, other staff and patients.
In recent testimony to Congress, NELP cites “literally hundreds” of cases where employers failed to implement proper workplace health and safety measures, many of them at meatpacking plants, warehouses and manufacturing facilities, digital delivery services, and grocery and retail stores. Employers would like to frame COVID-19 infections at work as inevitable during a pandemic, and many are arguing that businesses need the legal protections offered by McConnell and the GOP to reopen successfully. NELP argues that COVID-19 is very preventable when employers are held to account.
“Proof positive that Scalia has failed to protect workers is that in the meatpacking industry, where there are 16,000 cases of workers [being] infected and scores have died … the number of cases continues to rise because voluntary compliance does not work,” Berkowitz said.
Scalia has largely stayed out of public view during the pandemic besides the occasional interview with conservative and pro-business media outlets. On Tuesday, Scalia told Bloomberg journalists that he doesn’t expect the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit included in the first COVID-19 relief package to be extended beyond its current expiration date in July. Trump and other Republicans worry that unemployment benefits provide an incentive for workers to stay home. Scalia then dodged a question about raising the federal minimum wage — currently stuck at $7.25 per hour — and called for a return to the “vibrant economy” that existed before COVID-19.
“In terms of the things I’ll be looking at, of greatest interest will be simply, how quickly we put people back to work as we reopen,” Scalia said.
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