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What would it look like to reopen the economy safely? First, listen to workers

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At some point, some way, businesses and other parts of the economy will reopen. Donald Trump wants that to happen within weeks, quickly and without regard for public health. But while we need to insist on listening to public health experts about when to reopen, there are also questions about what it should look like when that happens. Workers need a voice in that, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., said in a new working people’s plan for reopening the economy the right way.

That’s the first and most important part of the plan: Workers’ voices need to be heard at every level, from the individual workplace up to the federal government. But that’s not the only important principle to uphold in making sure that workers are safe as their workplaces reopen. Workers need adequate personal protective equipment on the job—and training to use it correctly—and they need widespread testing, reporting and tracking, and contact tracing to prevent workplace-based outbreaks.

PPE is needed once workers are back on the job. But how will we know it’s time for that to happen? “The primary criterion for deciding whether it is safe for working people to return to work is worker safety, assessed on the basis of sound science rather than politics or profits,” the AFL-CIO plan says. That means the government agencies that are supposed to protect worker safety have to use their expertise and enforcement powers—which already hadn’t been happening under Trump.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration “must issue an emergency temporary standard for infectious diseases that requires all employers—including public employers in states without an approved OSHA state plan—that are currently open, or will reopen, to develop and implement an infection control plan, with requirements for hazard assessment, engineering controls, work practice and administrative controls, provision of personal protective equipment, training, medical surveillance, and medical removal protections,” the AFL-CIO argues. “Federal and state safety agencies must conduct worksite inspections to enforce existing standards and the infectious disease standard, and issue clear enforcement directives to ensure that employers are protecting workers in every sector.”

Workers also have to be protected from retaliation if they refuse to work when working means exposure to the virus or if they blow the whistle about unsafe working conditions, among other possibilities. 

Trump wants none of this, of course. He’s looking for ways to make the economy more abusive and less safe during and in the eventual wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is part of what it would look like to do right by workers. Democrats in Congress and in the states and running for president should be paying attention.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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