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Businesses brace for mandatory workplace safety rules under Biden

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President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that employers must follow to protect workers from coronavirus exposure. It’s likely to be one of his first big fights with American business and a test of how far he can go to create a national strategy to slow a pandemic that is still raging out of control.

Employers, which until now have been treated to a flurry of optional guidelines by the Trump administration that have been revised and rewritten throughout the coronavirus crisis, are bracing for the new Biden rules.

Biden and his allies believe that a national set of rules for employers could help workers return more quickly to offices and other workplaces since everyone would be following the same emergency standard, rather than a patchwork of state-by-state, county-by-county regulations.

“We cannot successfully restart our economy until workers are safe — and the first step is to require that businesses implement very basic measures to prevent the virus from spreading in the workplace,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama who’s now with the National Employment Law Project. “To stem the growing number of cases, hospitalizations and death from COVID 19, it is critical that OSHA, or the Biden administration, promulgate an emergency temporary standard immediately to mitigate the spread of this disease at work and then back out into the community.”

But Republicans and the business community are likely to come out strong against any such broad mandates.

“If done the wrong way, if it’s implemented as a strict regulatory requirement with little flexibility, I think it will be difficult for many businesses to implement,” Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief policy officer, said during a press call this week. Ultimately, he said, it “will hold back both fighting the coronavirus and restoring the economy.”

The issue threatens to set up a contentious battle in the lame duck session of Congress, when lawmakers debate a new coronavirus relief package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are demanding a robust liability shield for businesses and schools as a condition for a new aid package — a provision that former OSHA officials say would strip Biden of the ability to enforce Covid-19 workplace protections.

As part of his plan to combat the coronavirus, Biden says he will direct his administration to issue the so-called emergency temporary standard, which would lay out specific precautions that employers must take to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The standard isn’t likely to fully take shape until the new administration assumes control of the government, but a former OSHA official predicted it would at least mandate the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines, which broadly suggest allowing for social distancing, frequently disinfecting the workplace and providing protective equipment like gloves, goggles or face masks.

Implementing such a rule is something the new president could do quickly, even without Senate-confirmed leadership at the Labor Department or OSHA, according to two former senior OSHA officials.

Unions and labor advocates have slammed OSHA over its response to the pandemic. While the worker safety watchdog has cited companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines in cases where their workers fell ill or have even died from the coronavirus. OSHA has also used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Unions say that much of the problem lies with the flexibility the watchdog has given to employers and the influence businesses have had over its enforcement efforts.

But flexibility is what businesses want to maintain.

The Chamber’s Bradley said that while he’s confident the Biden administration will listen to businesses’ position, any emergency standard would need to “be flexible enough to recognize” employers’ ability to implement public health safety measures and to “accommodate the differences in how businesses operate.”

“There is a big concern,” said Robyn Boerstling, who oversees human resources policy issues at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Every manufacturing facility is generally different. They make different things, they have different procedures, they have different assembly lines, production processes. So, manufacturers need flexibility in different ways to implement their controls.”

Boerstling says Biden’s plan will leave businesses with little room to weigh in on how the rules affect their specific industry once the emergency standard is in place.

When OSHA determines workers are in “grave danger,” the agency is able to issue emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately. The emergency standard stays in place until a permanent final rule is issued, but the agency will accept public comments on the standard during that period.

“An ETS is very immediate,” Boerstling said. “It’s permanent until it’s not permanent.”

The American Hospital Association, which represents more than 5,000 hospitals and health care providers that would be heavily regulated under any such infectious disease rule, suggested that an emergency infectious disease standard could hinder the health response to the virus.

The organization issued a fact sheet warning its members that an emergency standard would create “a new layer of conflicting and unnecessary regulatory burden at precisely the wrong time,” putting a strain on supplies of protective equipment and limiting hospital capacity.

“Unions have reported filing numerous OSHA complaints against hospitals; such actions could force hospitals to dramatically reduce their inpatient capacity rather than potentially expose themselves to very large fines,” the fact sheet said.

The maximum fine OSHA can issue against an employer is $134,937 per violation, when an employer’s breach of safety rules is considered “willful” or is a repeated violation. For other violations, including “serious” and “other than serious” offenses, the safety agency’s fines max out at $13,494 per infraction.

Such concerns were what prompted McConnell to push for Covid-19 liability protections — including shielding employers from being fined under federal safety laws — warning that “one-size-fits-all” rules would prompt “an epidemic of lawsuits” against employers who can’t comply.

But with both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats facing runoff elections that will determine which party controls the upper chamber, the GOP’s negotiating posture over another aid bill is weaker than when McConnell first made those calls.

While there’s little chance Democrats would be willing to limit their incoming president’s ability to police workplace safety in exchange for an aid bill in the lame duck, McConnell seems in no mood to drop his demand for liability protections.

“It should be highly targeted, very similar to what I put on the floor in October and September,” he said of the next aid bill during a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Stephanie Land’s ‘Maid’ shows the limits of hard work in struggle to survive the U.S. economy

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How could Stephanie Land’s book Maid not make a splash, with the opening sentence, “My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” and a follow-through that lives up to the impact of that sentence? A splash it has made, debuting at number three on The New York Times bestseller list over the winter, and now being turned into a TV show and making former President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Land’s book tells the story of years spent scraping by as a single mother to her daughter Mia, patching together government aid and work cleaning houses while coping with inadequate housing, inadequate child care, an abusive ex, and the constant stress and pain involved in all those things. But it’s also a challenge to its readers, pushing us to reckon with the comprehensive stresses of poverty, the importance of government assistance, and—for those who can afford to have someone else clean their homes—how to do the ethical thing (more on that coming soon, at least for people living inWashington, D.C., Baltimore, and Boston).

Maid is a beautiful book and a sad book and even, at times, a joyful book—a story of a mother’s love for her daughter—but most of all it’s an important book about the U.S. economy and what it does to people. Maid is filled with keen observations of the houses Land cleaned—she first broke through as a writer with a Vox piece about what she saw in those homes—and devastating details about what it takes, as a low-paid service worker, to make comparatively wealthy customers happy: ignoring the copious amounts of porn in one house, or the pills in another, dealing with the dog poop on a beige carpet. Getting every last hair out of a tub coated in the owner’s bath oils.

Land also weaves into that narrative the insecurity, indignity, and fear involved in poverty—the doctors who suggest she’s a bad mother because poverty is making her daughter sick; the moments when a client does treat her as a human being, a peer, moments that shine through because they’re so unusual; the vulnerability to heat and cold and mold in a shoddy apartment; the need to keep an old car running; the physical pain and hunger. “I walked along a deep precipice of hopelessness,” she writes. “Each morning brought a constant, lip-chewing stress over making it to work and getting home without my car breaking down. My back ached constantly. I dampened my hunger pangs with coffee. It felt impossible to climb out of this hole.”

Part of the reason this works so powerfully within the framework of the stories the United States tells about itself, of course, is because Land is so middle-class in her tastes and aspirations—because the next sentence in the above passage is, “My only real hope was school: an education would be my token to freedom.” Because she wants her daughter to eat fresh berries and drink organic milk, because she see books in a man’s apartment as an attraction, because she is someone who can write her way out of poverty. She is tailor-made to appeal even to people who don’t support a strong safety net or who don’t see low-wage workers as worthy of respect. But Maid is an important book about U.S. politics precisely because Land is constantly aware of how exactly that works in her life—how the people around her don’t see her as someone who is, who could be, desperately poor. How her friends and employers don’t imagine her to be on government aid as they sneer at and insult people on government aid, people that she keenly points out are always seen as other in a way she is not.

Land is crystal clear that she survived with the help of government assistance: Chapter 5 of the book, in fact, is titled, “Seven different kinds of government assistance.” She shows powerfully how difficult that assistance is to access and how inadequate to her needs it is. And she is equally clear about who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt while she, as a white woman working her way through college, did, writing about a cleaning client—someone from whom she needed employment—railing, “Last time I went to the big store, I got in line behind a Mexican family … They used food stamps to pay for their food. And those kids were dressed to the nines!”

In that moment, Land writes, she kept cleaning the woman’s house, biting her tongue and thinking “of how much Mia loved her fancy dresses and shiny shoes, which I purchased with credit from the consignment store. Maybe Donna didn’t realize I was on food stamps, too.” She goes on:

I wanted to tell Donna that it wasn’t her business what that family bought or ate or wore and that I hated when cashiers at the supermarket said “On your EBT?” loud enough for people in line behind me to hear. I wanted to tell her that undocumented people couldn’t receive food benefits or tax refunds, even though they paid taxes. They couldn’t receive any benefits at all. Those were available only for people who were born here or who had obtained the documents to stay. So those children, whose parents had risked so much to give them a good life, were citizens who deserved every bit as much government help as my daughter did. I knew this because I’d sat beside them in countless government offices. I overheard their conversations with caseworkers sitting behind glass, failing to communicate through a language barrier. But these attitudes that immigrants came here to steal our resources were spreading, and the stigmas resembled those facing anyone who relied on government assistance to survive.

That’s a passage that speaks especially loudly in the era of Donald Trump, of course, while reminding readers that Trump didn’t create this kind of bigotry.

In some of Maid’s most poignant moments, Land permits herself to dream, briefly, of luxuries not available to her. There are the tickets to a Mariners game, offered to her by a client, that are “a dream I’d had since I’d been Mia’s age,” but that she can’t use herself because she can’t afford the gas money. Or the time she “noticed the hot tub with an empty bottle of champagne sitting in the corner” at a home she’s cleaning and “My body ached, yearned for even a chance, just one opportunity, to drink champagne in a hot tub.” I dearly hope that the book’s success has let her live out those, and other, daydreams. But you shouldn’t have to write a bestseller to get a single afternoon or evening of fun and relaxation, and it would be difficult for me, at least, to enjoy a kitchen that’s clean because someone else was doing painful labor and still living in poverty.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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I Get America, It’s Americans That Confuse Me

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Image: Bob RosnerI understand the home-of-the-free-and-land-of-the-brave. I get bring-me-your-tired-huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free. I can even relate to hot dogs-apple pie-and-baseball.

What I don’t understand is how passive Americans have been in the face of the economic challenges brought on by the recession. I thought we were a feisty country, tough and ready to stand up for what’s right.

Case in point this week. Three banks, Bank of America, JP Morgan and GMAC announced that they’ve frozen foreclosure cases in 23 states because of sloppy practices, officials who signed documents without reviewing them or having a notary present. Am I the only person who finds it ironic that the very banks that we loaned money to keep afloat are now screwing over homeowners with flawed, and illegal, foreclosure policies?

We also had Senators decrying continuing unemployment benefits for people unable to find work because of budgetary concerns. But these same legislators have no difficulty in pushing for more tax breaks for the people who have made out like bandits for the past decade. The rich will continue to get richer because of their investments. Isn’t that good enough, why do they have to continue to pile on the profits at our expense?

People are losing jobs, losing houses and losing hope. Yet we haven’t demanded changes to our current system of capitalism for poor people and socialism for the rich.

In Europe there are protests in the streets in many countries at efforts to cut the budget, but not here. Not even close.

Domestic Goddess Roseanne Barr once said that she knew when her husband was home because the “couch was snoring.” Sound familiar?

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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