Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, frontline workers in sectors deemed âessentialâ have staged hundreds of strikes, sickouts and other job actions to protest unsafe working conditions.
At hospitals, warehouses, meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants, transport and delivery services, and retail and grocery stores, workers have demanded their employers do more to prevent the spread of the virusâincluding keeping worksites clean and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They have been aided in many cases by unions and new initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committeeâa joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with ensuring on-the-job safetyâthe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)âhas received over 26,000 Covid-related complaints at the federal and state level, but to date has issued citations against only four employers, all of them nursing homes.
While the AFL-CIO has called on OSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases as an immediate, enforceable mechanism to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic, the agency has refused, saying thereâs a lack of âcompelling evidenceâ that diseases like Covid-19 pose a âgrave threatâ to workers. Instead, OSHA has put forward non-binding guidelines around coronavirus.
Critics like Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health say OSHA is âmissing in actionâ and that the agencyâs lackluster pandemic response is âa national disgrace.â
In a new report released today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)âa network of over 60 scholars advocating public protections around health, safety and the environmentâis calling on Congress to significantly strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the legislation that first created OSHA nearly 50 years ago.
Katie Tracy, senior policy analyst at CPR and a coauthor of the report, says OSHAâs poor response to the pandemic âis emblematic of several decades of choices by our national and state leaders that prioritize short-term profits ahead of people.â
âSince 1970, Congress and the White House have hollowed out [OSHA], denying it resources and trimming its authority, leaving it in a weak state,â adds CPR member scholar Rena Steinzor, another report coauthor.
As a result of this hollowing out, the agency now has only one inspector for every 79,262 workers. The report explains that with so few resources, OSHA has the capability to perform only one inspection per worksite every 134 years.
CPR member and report coauthor Michael C. Duff points out that âBlack, Latinx and other people of color are disproportionately representedâ in some of the most high-risk and low-paid jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. âOur governing institutions have done little to safeguard these workers from the health hazards or economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19,â he says.
The CPR report specifically recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to allow workers to enforce the law themselves by filing lawsuits under a private right of action. Such âcitizen suitsâ are already a feature of many other federal regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Clean Air Act, the report notes.
âEmpowering workers with a private right of action is critical to ensuring safer and healthier workplaces because, even with a robust regulatory system, there will always be limits on what OSHA has the resources and political will to do,â the report says. âWhen the prospect of a private lawsuit is put on the table, the agency may be more motivated, even compelled, to pursue the serious allegations raised by employees.â
The report spells out how a private right of action would work, including provisions for notice of intent to sue, waiting periods, standing, statutes of limitation, discovery, robust remedies, and more. Importantly, it calls for beefed up whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against employees who speak up, as well as an end to arbitration agreements that require workers to forfeit the right to sue their employers.
Further, the report urges lawmakers to expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include public sector workers, farmworkers and gig workers misclassified as independent contractorsâall of whom were excluded in the original 1970 legislation.
âFixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay,â says CPR board member and report coauthor Thomas McGarity.
Tracy tells In These Times that as a nonprofit, CPR doesnât do political lobbying, but still hopes that âsome of our allies off and on the Hill will find this concept worthy of taking up because it would be such an improvement over the status quo.â
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting to include employer liability protections in any new Covid relief package, warning there will be âa second epidemicâŚof frivolous coronavirus lawsuits.â
âRather than fight for business liability immunity,â Tracy says, âwe need to be empowering workers to enforce the law when OSHA wonât.â
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Masterâs in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke