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Clyburn pressures OSHA over its failures on meatpacking plant COVID-19 outbreaks

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Meatpacking plants have been the sites of some of the worst outbreaks—and the worst abuses—of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, is planning to investigate. Clyburn put the meatpacking industry and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on notice Monday.

Clyburn charged that OSHA failed “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws.” With 482 outbreaks in the meat industry, more than 45,000 workers having gotten sick, and 482 deaths, OSHA has nonetheless issued just eight citations and $80,000 in fines for COVID-19 issues in the industry.

That’s despite workers alleging that managers at one plant had a betting pool on how many employees would get sick while they pressured workers to stay on the job no matter what. Despite the industry coming under such scrutiny in public that Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad defending itself. But the public scrutiny didn’t mean government scrutiny—the Trump administration and state and local governments repeatedly gave meatpacking companies a pass.

At meatpacking giant JBS, 3,084 workers have had COVID-19, and 18 have died, Clyburn noted, and an OSHA investigation found serious safety lapses. Meanwhile, the company’s profits have skyrocketed, growing 778% in the third quarter of 2020. At Smithfield, 3,553 workers contracted COVID-19 and eight died. In just one outbreak, 1,300 people were infected, 43 were hospitalized, and four died. Clyburn is requesting “all documents” relating to worker complaints or concerns, as well as documents relating to federal or state safety investigations.

“The meat and poultry industry became a vector for the spread of COVID 19 because it did not implement basic safety precautions. Stunningly, when workers filed complaints about unsafe conditions in the pandemic, OSHA failed to conduct inspections,” Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff who is now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, said. “This investigation is critical to find out why, among all the big industries, the meat industry was able to get a pass at protecting workers in this pandemic.”

Clyburn’s warning shot to OSHA—obviously with a very different leadership than presided over the meatpacking industry’s coronavirus response to this point—comes as the agency considers whether to put emergency standards in place to require employers to take COVID-19 precautions. That decision will be made on March 15.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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WHICH STATES AND CITIES HAVE ADOPTED COMPREHENSIVE COVID-19 WORKER PROTECTIONS?

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As the COVID-19 pandemic surges in the United States, workers have continued to protest and organize for their safety and health—but action is needed at all levels of government, starting with the top. To date, the Trump administration—specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace. In the absence of federal leadership, some governors and state health departments have stepped up to expand worker protections.

OSHA has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace.

Some states have issued executive orders with very specific worker protection requirements, and Virginia issued a first-in-the-nation Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. Oregon and Michigan also have issued emergency standards. Other states have issued guidelines, some of which they intend to enforce. Some cities as well have issued protective ordinances for workers.

Many states’ executive orders (including the Virginia standard) require employers to heed the following:

  • ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between employees and their coworkers and customers;
  • provide face masks to all employees if maintaining six-foot social distance is not always possible;
  • require customer to wear face masks;
  • provide employees with other personal protective equipment in addition to face coverings;
  • improve ventilation;
  • provide employees with regular access to hand-washing and soap;
  • have hand sanitizer readily available to workers;
  • require deep cleaning after COVID cases are discovered in the workplace; and
  • notify workers when cases are found.

In some states, such as Oregon, Michigan, and Nevada, enforcement is handled by state occupational safety and health agencies; in others, by health departments, labor departments, and the attorney general’s office. Some states where federal OSHA has traditionally done enforcement are still figuring out how best to enforce these protections.

Inexcusably, the Trump administration has abandoned its responsibility to ensure that workers and the general public are safe in this pandemic. As the number of workers infected with and dying from this disease continues to grow, it’s clear that a voluntary approach to worker safety is not mitigating this public health disaster.

A voluntary approach to worker safety has failed to mitigate this public health disaster.

Even while workers continue to take major risks in speaking out and organizing in their workplaces, communities of color are paying the heaviest price for this federal policy failure. Although all workers on the job now or returning to work in the near future are at risk of illness, Black and Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants, are more likely to be in frontline jobs. In addition, these communities have disproportionate rates of serious illness and death related to COVID-19, stemming from structural racism over generations related to healthcare and access to care. It is crucial that state and local policymakers step up to prioritize these workers and thereby further protect communities in this pandemic.

Below is a list of the 14 states that have adopted comprehensive worker safety protections (with links to more information). In addition to these, separate executive orders requiring face masks in the workplace have been issued by some governors (e.g., North CarolinaTexas, Massachusetts), cities (e.g., Raleigh, NC), and counties. Philadelphia has also issued the first citywide ordinance protecting workers from retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety and health concerns or refusing to work under unsafe conditions related to COVID-19.

California

Cal/OSHA adopted a new emergency standard for COVID prevention on November 19, 2020:
https://www.dir.ca.gov/OSHSB/documents/COVID-19-Prevention-Emergency-apprvdtxt.pdf

https://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5199.html (the Cal/OSHA aerosol transmission standard that covers healthcare and first-response employees)

http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/147290.pdf (L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to facilitate worker-led health councils to monitor business compliance with public health orders mitigating the spread of COVID-19 at work)

https://thelafed.org/releases/in-battle-against-covid-19-board-of-supervisors-propose-innovative-solution/

Illinois

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-32.aspx (initial EO issued April 30)

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-38.aspx (updated EO issued May 29)

http://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/guidance-food-and-meat-processing-facilities (issued by Illinois Department of Public Health)

From the reopening checklists now being published: “Any employee who has had close contact with co-worker or any other person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days after the last/most recent contact with the infectious individual and should seek a COVID-19 test at a state or local government testing center, healthcare center or other testing locations. All other employees should be on alert for symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath and taking temperature if symptoms develop.”

Kentucky

https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-healthy-at-work

Massachusetts

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-mandatory-safety-standards-for-workplaces

https://www.mass.gov/forms/report-unsafe-working-conditions-during-covid-19 (complaint form)

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/covid-19-workplace-safety-measures-for-reopening

Michigan

Michigan OSHA issued Emergency Rules for COVID-19 on October 14, 2020. (See related press release.)

Two executive orders previously issued (here and here) will no longer be enforced by the state due to a Michigan Supreme Court decision on October 2nd invalidating the orders.

Minnesota

https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/businesses.html

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_business_plan_template.pdf

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_meatpacking_guidance.pdf(for meat)

https://www.leg.state.mn.us/archive/execorders/20-54.pdf (on the right to refuse work)

Nevada

http://business.nv.gov/News_Media/COVID-19_Announcements/

http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-04-29_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_016_(Attachments)/

http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-05-07_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_018_-_Phase_One_Reopening_(Attachments)/

New Jersey 

On October 28, 2020, New Jersey’s governor issued Executive Order 192 to protect New Jersey’s workers during the pandemic. The governor’s press release provides an overview.

This comes on top of an earlier executive order issued on April 8, 2020 requiring essential retail businesses and industries to take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, among other things. (The state is also updating industry-specific guidance.)

New York 

https://agriculture.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/04/retailfoodstoreguidanceforseniors_1.pdf(some essential industries remain without guidance)

https://forward.ny.gov/

Oregon

On November 6, 2020, Oregon OSHA adopted a new COVID-19 emergency temporary rule addressing COVID-19 workplace risks.

This follows previous executive orders issued during the pandemic:
– https://www.oregon.gov/gov/admin/Pages/eo_20-12.aspx (executive order)
– https://osha.oregon.gov/news/2020/Pages/nr2020-19.aspx (Oregon OSHA)
– https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/07/01/oregon-osha-to-enforce-mask-rules/ (enforcing the EO)

Pennsylvania

Gov. Wolf: Health Secretary Signs Order Providing Worker Safety Measures to Combat COVID-19

COVID-19 Guidance for Businesses

https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200415-SOH-worker-safety-order.pdf

https://www.jacksonlewis.com/sites/default/files/docs/PhiladelphiaCertifiedCopy20032801.pdf(Philadelphia ordinance that includes retaliation protections for raising concerns or refusing unsafe work; plus private right of action)

Rhode Island

https://reopeningri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19-Control_Plan_Fillable_Template-Final-5.13.20.pdf?189db0&189db0

VITAL WORKPLACE RESOURCES

Virginia

https://www.doli.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/COVID-19-Emergency-Temporary-Standard-FOR-PUBLIC-DISTRIBUTION-FINAL-7.17.2020.pdf (Virginia OSH has just passed the nation’s first Emergency Temporary Standard for workers, which will be effective the week of July 27)

Washington State

https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19AgriculturalSafetyPlan.pdf(COVID protections for farmworkers)

https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/4300/TWH-RevisedRule-9-10-2020.pdf (revised emergency rule on temporary worker housing)

https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers (this is written as enforceable guidance)

https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-rules/enforcement-policies/DD170.pdf (enforcement)

This blog originally appeared at NELP on December 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Deborah Berkowitz NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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This pandemic-year Thanksgiving, think hard about the system that has workers on the job today

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Laura-Clawson-1.jpg

Every Thanksgiving, people across the United States gather with their family and friends to celebrate and eat and be with their loved ones. And at the same time, people across the United States are at work—maybe having rescheduled their holiday meal around their work and maybe having given up the celebration entirely. 

Well, this year is different. Fewer people will be gathered in big family groups. And the people who are working are doing so in radically different, more stressful, more dangerous circumstances. That’s true of the healthcare workers and first responders standing ready to respond to emergencies every hour of every day of the year. More than 1,000 healthcare workers have died of COVID-19, and no one is keeping a reliable count of how many have gotten sick, a fact that hangs over these workers every day.

The grocery workers ringing up the people scrambling to get that one forgotten ingredient for the big meal now do their work at risk to their health, on Thanksgiving and every other day. They’re essential workers who are too often treated as disposable, and paid too little to pay their bills. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, other retail stores, meat packing and processing, and more. As of early September, at least 238 of its frontline members had died of COVID-19, with 29,000 having been infected or exposed to the virus. Obviously, UFCW members are just a small fraction of the grocery workers nationwide. 

Then there are the workers at the retail chains that try to milk that Black Friday business for every penny they can get by opening on Thanksgiving. Because people shouldn’t have to wait until Friday morning for those sweet sweet doorbuster deals. There’s absolutely no reason those workers should be on the job on Thanksgiving, not even a shred of a reason—besides capitalist greed.

If you’re sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal—even a much more solitary one than you had hoped for, even if back in April you were looking ahead to the holidays when the pandemic would surely be behind us—take a moment to think about these workers and about the organization of our society that forces so many of them to be on the job for such flimsy or nonexistent reasons. 

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom, especially during a pandemic that means people in the workplace are very often people whose health is at risk. In a normal year, Thanksgiving should be time to recommit yourself to the fight for everyone to get a (paid) holiday sometimes, for everyone to have the leisure and the budget to relax and celebrate and eat well. In this coronavirus year, it should be a time to recommit yourself to the fight for the government to pay people to stay home if they don’t absolutely need to be at work, to keep people housed and fed and healthy while we wait for a safe and effective vaccine.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 26, 2020 Reprinted with permission.

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


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Which States and Cities Have Adopted Comprehensive COVID-19 Worker Protections?

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14 states have adopted comprehensive COVID worker safety protections so far.

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges in the United States, workers have continued to protest and organize for their safety and health—but action is needed at all levels of government, starting with the top. To date, the Trump administration—specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—has resisted issuing any workplace safety standards or requirements to protect workers from COVID-19 in the workplace. In the absence of federal leadership, some governors and state health departments have stepped up to expand worker protections.

Some states have issued executive orders with very specific worker protection requirements, and Virginia has just issued the first-in-the-nation Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers. Other states have issued guidelines, some of which they intend to enforce. Some cities as well have issued protective ordinances for workers.

Many states’ executive orders (including the Virginia standard) require employers to heed the following:

  • ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between employees and their coworkers and customers;
  • provide face coverings and require employees to wear them if maintaining six-foot social distance is not always possible;
  • provide employees with other personal protective equipment in addition to face coverings;
  • provide employees with regular access to hand-washing and soap;
  • have hand sanitizer readily available to workers;
  • require deep cleaning after COVID cases are discovered in the workplace; and
  • notify workers when cases are found.

In some states, such as Oregon, Michigan, and Nevada, enforcement is handled by state occupational safety and health agencies; in others, by health departments and the attorney general’s office. Some states where federal OSHA has traditionally done enforcement are still figuring out how best to enforce these protections.

Inexcusably, the Trump administration has abandoned its responsibility to ensure that workers and the general public are safe in this pandemic. As the number of workers infected with and dying from this disease continues to grow, it’s clear that a voluntary approach to worker safety is not mitigating this public health disaster.

Even while workers continue to take major risks in speaking out and organizing in their workplaces, communities of color are paying the heaviest price for this federal policy failure. Although all workers on the job now or returning to work in the near future are at risk of illness, Black and Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants, are more likely to be in frontline jobs. In addition, these communities have disproportionate rates of serious illness and death related to COVID-19, stemming from structural racism over generations related to healthcare and access to care. It is crucial that state and local policymakers step up to prioritize these workers and thereby further protect communities in this pandemic.

Below is a list of the 14 states that have adopted comprehensive worker safety protections (with links to more information). In addition to these, separate executive orders requiring face masks in the workplace have been issued by some governors (e.g., North CarolinaTexas, Massachusetts), cities (e.g., Raleigh, NC), and counties. Philadelphia has also issued the first citywide ordinance protecting workers from retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety and health concerns or refusing to work under unsafe conditions related to COVID-19.

California

https://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5199.html (the Cal/OSHA standard)

https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/coronavirus/Health-Care-General-Industry.html (unclear how this guidance is being enforced)

https://files.covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-food-packing.pdf (sample guidance)

Illinois

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-32.aspx (initial EO issued April 30)

https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-38.aspx (updated EO issued May 29)

http://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/guidance-food-and-meat-processing-facilities(issued by Illinois Department of Public Health)

From the reopening checklists now being published: “Any employee who has had close contact with co-worker or any other person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days after the last/most recent contact with the infectious individual and should seek a COVID-19 test at a state or local government testing center, healthcare center or other testing locations. All other employees should be on alert for symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath and taking temperature if symptoms develop.”

Kentucky

https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-healthy-at-work

Massachusetts

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-mandatory-safety-standards-for-workplaces

https://www.mass.gov/forms/report-unsafe-working-conditions-during-covid-19 (complaint form)

Michigan

https://content.govdelivery.com/attachments/MIEOG/2020/07/09/file_attachments/1492329/EO%202020-145%20Emerg%20order%20-%20Workplace%20safeguards%20-%20re-issue.pdf

Minnesota

https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/businesses.html
https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_business_plan_template.pdf

https://www.dli.mn.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/COVID_19_meatpacking_guidance.pdf(for meat)

https://www.leg.state.mn.us/archive/execorders/20-54.pdf (on the right to refuse work)

Nevada

http://business.nv.gov/News_Media/COVID-19_Announcements/
http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-04-29_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_016_(Attachments)/
http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-05-07_-_COVID-19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_018_-_Phase_One_Reopening_(Attachments)/

New Jersey 

https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20200408e.shtml(the state is updating industry-specific guidance as well)

New York 

https://agriculture.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/04/retailfoodstoreguidanceforseniors_1.pdf(some essential industries remain without guidance)

https://forward.ny.gov/

Oregon

https://www.oregon.gov/gov/admin/Pages/eo_20-12.aspx(executive order)

https://osha.oregon.gov/news/2020/Pages/nr2020-19.aspx (Oregon OSHA)

https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/07/01/oregon-osha-to-enforce-mask-rules/ (enforcing the EO)

Pennsylvania

https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200415-SOH-worker-safety-order.pdf

https://www.jacksonlewis.com/sites/default/files/docs/PhiladelphiaCertifiedCopy20032801.pdf(Philadelphia ordinance that includes retaliation protections for raising concerns or refusing unsafe work; plus private right of action)

Rhode Island

https://reopeningri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19-Control_Plan_Fillable_Template-Final-5.13.20.pdf?189db0&189db0

Virginia

https://www.doli.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/COVID-19-Emergency-Temporary-Standard-FOR-PUBLIC-DISTRIBUTION-FINAL-7.17.2020.pdf (Virginia OSH has just passed the nation’s first Emergency Temporary Standard for workers, which will be effective the week of July 27)

Washington State

https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers (this is written as enforceable guidance)

https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-rules/enforcement-policies/DD170.pdf (enforcement)

This blog originally appeared at NELP on July 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Debbie Berkowitz, NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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Clash over government role in worker safety intensifies as businesses reopen

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Democrats and unions are trying to compel the Trump administration to aggressively police workplace safety as businesses from auto plants to retail stores begin reopening across the country. 

The AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, on Monday asked a federal court to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue mandatory workplace safety rules, which the agency so far has refused to do. And House Democrats on Friday passed a coronavirus aid package that would require the agency to issue emergency safety requirements for employers.

The moves come amid a standoff that’s been brewing for weeks over who’s accountable if workers get sick on the job. Business groups say the economic downturn won’t end until places of work can reopen, and that can’t happen if employers are getting sued over exposure to the highly contagious virus. That message is gaining traction with congressional Republicans, who are pushing for liability protections for employers whose workers fall ill. And OSHA says new rules aren’t needed.

“Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time,” an OSHA spokesperson said. 

Advocates for workers point to the data: Out of 3,990 Covid-19-related complaints that OSHA has received — many concerning a lack of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns — the agency had opened only 310 coronavirus-related inspections as of May 18, according to a Labor Department spokesperson.

Some 2,694 of those complaints have been closed, and the agency has not yet issued a single Covid-19-related citation, the spokesperson said. (One possible reason is that OSHA takes into account a business’s “good faith efforts” when deciding whether to issue a citation.)

According to the watchdog group Accountable.U.S., OSHA inspections have gone down since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency on March 13,from 217 per day on average to 60. 

OSHA maintains that the agency investigates every complaint and “will enforce workplace protection requirements where appropriate.”

“The agency also responded to double the number of inquiries related to Covid-19 as compared to all inquiries handled in March and April of the previous year,” a spokesperson said. 

But David Michaels, who was OSHA chief during the Obama administration, said last week at a member briefing for the House Education and Labor Committee, “OSHA is essentially sitting back and saying, ‘We can’t do anything.’ It’s really appalling to me.”

Even when OSHA receives a complaint that someone died from potential Covid-19 exposure in the workplace, the agency’s enforcement plan says that “may warrant an on-site inspection,” but only in high-risk industries such as health care.

Safety complaints regarding lower-risk industries, the enforcement plan says, should prompt a “non-formal” response from OSHA that entails notifying the employer of the hazard by email. “All other formal complaints alleging SARS-CoV-2 exposure, where employees are engaged in medium or lower exposure risk tasks … will not normally result in an on-site inspection,” the enforcement plan directs.

The agency says the measures are an effort to take “appropriate diligence to protect our own personnel.”

“That is not enforcement. That is nothing,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser during the Obama administration who is now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. “They are not responding to formal complaints and are simply sending letters to the employer.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia maintains his department can enforce worker safety under a provision in the 1970 statute that created OSHA called the “general duty clause,” which requires businesses to maintain “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

The clause enables OSHA “to provide for the protection of employees who are working under such unique circumstances that no standard has yet been enacted to cover this situation,” the House Committee on Education and Labor said in 1970. Scalia has said the clause is “applicable” to Covid-19 safety enforcement, and that the agency will “use it as appropriate.”

But OSHA has rarely used the general duty clause in enforcement. According to the National Safety Council, it was applied in 1.5 percent of all OSHA citationsin fiscal year 2018 — in part, said Jordan Barab, who was OSHA deputy during the Obama administration, because it’s a cumbersome legal tool requiring a four-part legal test that makes it vulnerable to court challenge.

Worker advocates are now trying to force OSHA to become more aggressive. The AFL-CIO’s filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Monday came after the federation and other unions petitioned the agency directly to issue a coronavirus safety standard in March. The agency did not act on their requests.

“It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “But we’ve been left no choice. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.” 

The coronavirus stimulus bill that House Democrats passed on Friday would require OSHA to issue, within seven days of enactment, an “emergency temporary standard” — that is, mandatory coronavirus safety rules for employers. Through the crisis, OSHA has issued guidance documents, many in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in meatpacking plantspharmaciesnursing homesdentists’ officesand various other industries. But these are all recommendations, not government directives.

The Democrats’ bill would also require OSHA to issue, within 24 months of enactment, mandatory workplace safety rules for future disease outbreaks. The Obama administration began work on such a standard in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 but never completed work on it. That effort was shelved by the Trump administration.

To business groups and many congressional Republicans, more aggressive federal enforcement of workplace safety is a luxury that America can’t afford when business shutdowns have pushed unemployment up to Depression-era levels.

“We need to make sure bad actors are not given a break,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “But the people who are trying to do it right, can reopen their businesses, their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.”

But David Vladeck, a Georgetown Law professor, told senators at a May 12 hearing that providing blanket immunity to businesses, far from eliminating the cost of Covid-19 related injuries, would merely shift them onto workers and consumers.

“Immunity signals to workers and consumers that they go back to work, or they go to the grocery store at their peril,” Vladeck said, adding that businesses that safeguard employees and follow the recommended guidance will be protected from liability already.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 18, 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. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Workers turn to courts and states for safety protection as Trump declines to act

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Rebecca Rainey

President Donald Trump can force meatpacking plants to stay open during the pandemic, but his own administration hasn’t required employers to provide safety equipment to prevent the virus’ spread.

Now, workers in a range of industries are looking to states, Congress and the courts to step in.

A judge this week ordered leading meat company Smithfield to follow federal safety recommendations at a plant in Missouri, and labor advocates hope to use the lawsuit as a model to force companies in other sectors to protect workers.

They’re also asking Democratic lawmakers to make safety standards a part of the next round of coronavirus relief. In addition, they’re turning to state governments to enforce such protections.

The moves follow weeks of sparring with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department. OSHA has recommended employers to encourage hand washing and practice routine disinfecting, and it has issued safety guidelines for specific industries.

But those are merely guidelines, and some local OSHA offices have declined to enforce even the most basic recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When OSHA does open an investigation into workplace safety, the process takes weeks or months to resolve.

The White House, however, issued an executive order on Tuesdaynightto keep meat plants open to minimize disruptions in the food supply.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on — as they should have and still must do — this would not even have become an issue.”

Labor union leaders say the federal government’s and companies’ responses to the pandemic have been inconsistent, creating hazards for those in industries deemed essential.

“Thousands of workers have died and are sick. If that’s not necessary, I don’t know what is,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Tuesday. “The government’s response has been delinquent, delayed, disorganized, chaotic and deadly.”

As a result, workers across various industries that are at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus are using their unions to negotiate for greater protections and are pressing state leaders to lead efforts. According to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, more than 16,000 workers have already fallen ill, and hundreds have died from Covid-19.

In New Jersey, workers at the Barnes & Noble distribution center in Monroe delivered a petition to Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday asking that he close the facility for two weeks due to reported cases of the coronavirus among employees. At least 100 of the 800 employees at the Middlesex County warehouse have signed the petition, according to organizers.

Unions representing roughly 10,000 correction officers, captains and wardens in New York City recently filed a lawsuit arguing the city is putting their health and safety in danger by requiring officers work 24-hour shifts and return from sick leave without first getting a negative Covid-19 test.

Dozens of McDonald’s workers organized by the union-backed Fight For $15 movement have gone on strike at restaurants in Los Angeles, ChicagoTampa, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., among other cities, over a lack of protective equipment and sick leave.

And earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers and grocery chain Kroger called on federal and state officials to designate associates at grocery stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” so they could receive priority access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

Businesses have cautioned against issuing binding new rules.

In a letter Tuesday to local and federal leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers “to refrain from converting public health and safety guidance into regulations that may add further challenges for businesses to reopen.”

The Smithfield lawsuit, filed by a local nonprofit advocating for worker rights and an anonymous longtime plant employee, is the first of its kind seeking to use the courts to force companies to abide by federal guidelines to protect workers operating in dangerous conditions.

Twenty meatpacking and processing workers have died from the coronavirus. At least 6,500 have tested positive for Covid-19, showed symptoms, missed work or been hospitalized, according to UFCW, which represents 1.3 million across the country.

The lawsuit, filed last week, underscores the weakness of the federal government’s ability to quickly police worker safety, even in a time of crisis. OSHA confirmed it has started an investigation into the Missouri plant, but it could take weeks before the plant abates the safety hazards and OSHA issues a citation or fines.

The agency also recently issued a new enforcement guidance specific to the meatpacking industry, suggesting that employers space workers six feet apart and provide barriers in between workers, among other precautions.

But those guidelines are still only recommendations, and are currently unenforceable by OSHA or the CDC.

Democrats and labor advocates have been clamoring for a provision mandating such worker safety requirements to be included in the next round of coronavirus relief.

Last week, House Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced legislation that would require OSHA to issue an emergency standard within seven days that would lay out mandatory protections companies must provide to their workers to prevent exposure to Covid-19.

“Over the past few months, we have seen the tragic consequences of the Department of Labor’s failure to take urgent action to protect frontline health care workers and other essential employees,” Scott said when introducing the bill.

“Without an enforceable workplace safety standard to protect workers against Covid-19 infection,” he added, “nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery store workers, food processors, delivery workers, and many others will continue to suffer alarming rates of infection that have already led to thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths.”

But the Trump administration maintains DOL has all the enforcement tools it needs to ensure workers were being protected.

“When it comes to workplace safety we want to provide guidance and clarity and help employers do the right thing. Most are working hard to do so,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said on a phone call Thursday. “But we also know that unfortunately enforcement may be needed in some cases. We have the tools we need, and we’ll use them, if necessary.”

According to OSHA, the agency has received over 2,400 Covid-19 related complaints and has closed over 1,400 of them.

OSHA officials say the agency will enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and blood-borne pathogens throughout the pandemic. But safety advocates have complained those standards don’t address risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19.

Scalia also said the agency would issue citations under its broad general duty clause, which requires employers to maintain a workplace free of hazards, but that mechanism poses a high legal test.

“The human cost to America’s food, retail, and commercial workers is real and growing,” said UFCW President Marc Perrone. “From grocery stores to meatpacking plants, from senior care facilities to pharmacies, the impact on workers’ lives from this coronavirus is beyond tragic — and this crisis must be stopped before it gets worse.”

Katherine Landergan, Gabby Orr, Danielle Muoio and Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 28, 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.

Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.


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Grocery Store Workers Need Frontline Protections

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Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.

But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.

Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.

It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.

Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.

The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.

It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.

In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.

Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risksRecent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.

With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical system that has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.

“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.

Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.

Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.

This blog was originally published at NELP on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shayla Thompson is the government affairs manager on NELP’s Government Affairs team. She is a member of NELP’s committee tasked with change management and facilitating NELP’s commitment to dismantling structural racism. Her tenure at NELP has included conducting research in projects committed to racial equity, creating curriculum to guide NELP’s race caucuses, and facilitating equity training.

Shayla is committed to infusing race and inclusion into federal advocacy and creating policy messaging that reaches all working people.

Before joining NELP, she managed professional development training and social media campaigns for early childcare providers, infant mental health specialists, and parents.


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One Thing We Can Do to Protect Frontline Workers

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Almost exactly 10 years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and seriously injuring 17 more. To clean it up, BP hired more than 40,000 local residents to remove oil from the beaches and shoreline. They would be working under the blistering summer sun, greatly increasing their risk of heat-related disease or death.

I ran the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 through January 2017. Long before the oil reached the Gulf Coast shores, I flew to Louisiana and met with leaders of the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to plan the multiagency effort to ensure that BP protected those workers’ safety and health. OSHA adapted heat disease prevention policies used by the U.S. military to protect soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and pushed BP to comply with them. The rules included extensive rest breaks in the shade, and liquids for rehydration. We had no legal authority to do so, but BP complied—and over the four-month effort, not a single worker was seriously sickened or killed by heat.

This year, a new crisis has put a much bigger swath of the workforce—far more Americans, in many industries—unexpectedly in harm’s way. Millions of American workers are literally risking their lives every day on the job, saving desperately ill patients, ensuring food and medicine get to our stores and homes, and keeping the public safe. Every day there are reports of physiciansnursespolice and emergency responders, even bus drivers, who have died from Covid-19 after their employers failed to implement appropriate infection control measures or provide the adequate respiratory protection or sanitary facilities needed to prevent exposure in the course of their work.

Yet OSHA, the federal agency under the Department of Labor charged with protecting these workers, is almost completely missing from the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of pressing employers on worker safety, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the Labor Department have decided to tell workers there is little OSHA can do because it has no standard covering airborne infectious diseases. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising safety and health concerns, yet when workers are fired for lodging complaints about safety conditions in their hospitals or warehouses, this administration has been mute.

Existing OSHA regulations require a minimal effort of employers, such as providing soap and water, but I have yet to hear anyone from the Labor Department or the White House announce this fact to the public. Instead, workers in a wide range of industries who face the risk of fatal infection have taken matters into their own hands, launching job actions and strikes to force their employers into providing even basic protections.

We need more than guidance.

OSHA can, and should, be front and center in our efforts to protect these truly essential workers. The agency’s dedicated career staff has great expertise in worker protection, and the agency has issued useful guidance about Covid-19. But guidance is nonenforceable. This is simply shameful.

That’s because besides using its bully pulpit, OSHA has clear options for how to help. It could start by announcing that, using the general duty clause of the OSHA law, the agency will now issue citations against employers who egregiously fail to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News coverage of these citations would have a huge effect—a recent study reported one OSHA news release is as effective as 210 inspections in reducing workplace hazards.

For health care workers, the most important single action OSHA could and should take right now is to issue an emergency temporary infectious disease standard, requiring health care institutions to develop and implement infection-control plans that follow CDC guidance. (When Congress returns from its recess, it will consider legislation requiring OSHA to issue such a standard.)

In crises, OSHA generally does not issue fines except in cases in which the employer puts its workers at extreme risk. Hospitals that try but fail to obtain needed protective equipment would not be penalized. But the existence of a standard, backed up by the threat of inspections, would motivate many employers to better protect their workers.

I know OSHA could issue this emergency standard with little difficulty because we began drafting such a rule during my tenure. Three years ago, the new administration launched a massive deregulatory effort, halting all work on the infectious disease rule and many other protections.

The larger concern is that OSHA is suffering from malign neglect, reflecting the low regard the president has for the health and safety of the nation’s workers. The agency has not had an assistant secretary—the person who actually runs the agency day to day—since I left 39 months ago. There hasn’t even been a nominee for the position in almost a year. Half of the senior executive positions are empty, and, while the nation’s workforce has gotten much larger, the size of the inspectorate is the smallest it has been in more than 40 years. It would take 165 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just one time.

The Trump administration should not wait for Congress to force it to take badly needed action. This crisis has demonstrated the vital importance of a safe and healthy workforce. OSHA is the only federal agency with the authority and expertise to ensure that worker protection is not sacrificed in the efforts to tame this epidemic and can accomplish this using modest and mostly nonpunitive tools. The administration needs to do its part so every worker who risks their life taking care of patients or stocking our stores or harvesting our crops is able to survive this terrible pandemic, safe and healthy.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Michaels served as assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health from 2009 to 2017. He is professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, and is the author of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.


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Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

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kari-lydersen

The hospital where Kim Smith works is supposed to be a “safe haven,” says the patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. But now she feels it has become a “death trap.”

Like the nurses and doctors nationwide who are risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says she’s glad to help provide healthcare in such traumatic times. But she’s among the army of frontline healthcare service providers who, while crucial to keeping the system going, are earning much lower wages than doctors and nurses and often lack adequate healthcare and paid sick leave. And like doctors and nurses, these service workers often also lack access to personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in contact with infected patients.

Now, Chicago-area healthcare service workers—technicians, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), transporters, food service workers and housekeepers—are demanding better treatment and protection from their institutions, as well as additional “hazard pay” for their work during the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73—which represents workers at University of Illinois and Cook County public healthcare facilities in the Chicago area—announced that it had secured additional compensation for its workers in the university system. Union members will get an additional $1 to $5 per hour during the pandemic depending on their job description and where exactly they work within the system. The county system serves the area’s low-income and uninsured people including the hospital at the Cook County Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 cluster.

“The extra pay is not a really significant amount but it acknowledges that we recognize you, we know you are great, that you really care about your job and your community,” says Dian Palmer, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 73, which has been in contract negotiations with the University of Illinois system for about nine months.

The union SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana represents workers through contracts at hospitals including Northwestern Memorial and also has at-large members in nursing homes and hospitals in the Chicago area and across four states. They’re demanding hazard pay of 1.5 times the usual rate, and added protections for their members.

Smith, a chief steward for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, says fellow union members at Northwestern are “reaching out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work without proper safety equipment and protocols while receiving contradictory messages from management. Employees have been told to continue working even after they report COVID-like symptoms if they are “low-risk” for the disease, Smith says. With many of these workers living on the economic margins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluctant to take time off.

About 29,000 healthcare service workers in Illinois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Palmer notes that service job vacancies have been hard to fill at the University of Illinois Chicago hospital since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana Vice-President of the Health Systems Division, notes that with such low wages, these employees regularly work more than one job—whether picking up a second shift at a nursing home or as an Uber driver—increasing their own, and by extension patients’, risk of contacting coronavirus. She says employees are also used to working while sick, since they typically are guaranteed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pandemic, were penalized for taking extra ones.

Igoe says the majority of their Chicago-area members are African American and are women, many of them living in marginalized neighborhoods and with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of extreme illness or death from COVID-19. In Chicago, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities and more than half of confirmed cases have been among African Americans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nationwide, as in Chicago, lower-paid healthcare service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and people of color.

“This pandemic has made it clear who has access to testing, who has access to quality healthcare,” Igoe says. “Our low-wage workers in the finest hospitals are not given protections and not given the same access to follow-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Katina McDavis, 43, has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial for over 20 years. She has diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daughter and two infant grandchildren, and is terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to them.

Since the pandemic began, McDavis has been working overtime—often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her physically exhausted and potentially more vulnerable to illness.

She and other housekeepers are given surgical masks—not the more protective N-95 masks—and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an informal survey of about 250 SEIU Healthcare members during an online meeting, 58% reported they lack sufficient PPE and 38% said they were told by higher-ups that they don’t need PPE.

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day,” McDavis says. “I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Candice Martinez, another housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming down with symptoms about two weeks ago. She feels confident she contracted it on the job, having cleaned rooms where she says she was not properly notified that patients had the virus.

“It’s hard because I’m in complete isolation and I don’t get to see my son,” Martinez says. “It’s scary knowing there’s nothing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s having to battle this out on my own.”

While Martinez believes she will receive workers compensation for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources officials at several hospitals have told the union that workers will not be granted workers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through community transmission.

Igoe says employees often “find out co-workers tested positive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employer that someone they worked closely with yesterday tested positive.”

A statement from Northwestern Memorial did not address specific questions but said in part that: “The health and safety of our employees, physicians, and patients is our highest priority. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone.”

Loretto Hospital on the city’s West Side—where SEIU Healthcare represents employees—has granted time-and-a-half hazard pay to employees in the emergency department and COVID-19 unit. 

Loretto spokesperson Mark Walker says that workers do have access to sufficient PPE supplies, the hospital follows all CDC safety guidelines, and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be paid during their time off. But the hospital is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a largely poor, African American clientele, Walker says. At an April 7 press conference, hospital CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who represents the district, appealed to the city, county, state and federal government for more resources. 

“We are a small community hospital, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Medicaid meaning we’re providing services and being reimbursed at a much lower rate,” Walker said. “You take a pandemic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hospital, and you can reach a breaking point. We’re not there yet, but it creates additional stress on our resources and our funds. We’re trying to do everything we can to protect this community. Without additional resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Wellington Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loretto, said he goes to work each day fearing he may contract the disease. 

“COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. “We’re dealing with an influx of patients, the equipment we already struggled with (having enough of) is now scarce, employees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just contained areas, it’s spreading like a wildfire through the hospital—radiology, imaging, phlebotomy, blood tests.” 

(The Cook County health system had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story went to press.)

At other hospitals as at Loretto, workers say the pandemic has highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment that have long pushed healthcare service workers to the brink.

“Support staff like us have been the underdogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a respiratory specialist who runs ventilators for the University of Illinois system. “So getting hazard pay makes us feel like we are finally being recognized and respected for the work that we are doing, saving lives one breath at a time.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.


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For Incarcerated Workers, Summer Heat Can Be a Death Sentence

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Image result for Ella FasslerTemperatures reached 97 degrees on June 21 at the French Robinson Unit prison the day Seth Donnelly collapsedThe Texas Observer reported Seth passed out during his prison job of training attack dogs—running around in a 75-pound “fight suit” while the dogs tried to bite him. Seth’s internal body temperature was 106 when he reached the hospital, where doctors eventually took him off life support. He died on June 23, and his preliminary autopsy lists multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.

These conditions aren’t new. Danielle, who asked for In These Times to withhold her last name to protect her family-run business from social stigma, says she woke up in her cell in Texas at Gatesville Prison one typical early morning in July 2015, drenched in sweat. Without time (or permission) to shower or brush her teeth, she reports she was corralled to the fields in a heavy uniform.

“It didn’t feel safe,” says Danielle, who explains she picked tomatoes and jalapeño peppers without pay. Gatesville’s average high temperature that month was 98 degrees. “Texas in July, it’s like sitting on hell’s doorstep,” she says.

A guard who Danielle says she was “deathly terrified of” patrolled the “state property” (the term guards used for incarcerated people) on a horse. Danielle says she was not provided gloves, which often left her hands exposed to thorns and caustic jalapeño juices. One day, Danielle says, after several hours, another woman without gloves asked the guard if they could wash out their wounds. According to Danielle, the guard stopped, pulled her gun and yelled like a drill sergeant: “What are the rules of the field?” Danielle testifies that another group yelled back, “No breaks until work is done.”

Although there is little data or reporting on heat conditions for incarcerated workers, they may be especially vulnerable to being pushed to their limits because there are few labor protections and little to no oversight.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to protect workers from serious hazards (including heat-related risks). Though the Act does not cover incarcerated laborers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has said federal prisons must still uphold its standards—which include, when the heat index hits 91?103 degrees, reminding workers to drink 4 cups of water an hour, scheduling frequent breaks in cool areas, and developing work/rest schedules for workers in heavy clothing.

But OSHA rules do not apply to state prisons. Twenty-two states have adopted OSHA “state plans,” which cover state prisons with standards intended to be at least as effective as federal standards. Eight of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates have declined to adopt these plans.

“The guards could literally do whatever they wanted to us,” says Danielle, who was incarcerated in Texas from August 2014 to September 2015..

Danielle’s stated working conditions appear antithetical to OSHA’s guidelines. “There was a vehicle that would come by and bring some water, but if the vehicle broke down you were out of luck for water that day,” she says. “That happened numerous times. Even when we get water it was gone within a few minutes and they won’t refill it for you. There are 50-plus women and the women in the back don’t get any.”

Danielle also says adequate work/rest schedules were not implemented. “We would go on for four hours or more before we sat in the shade,” she says. “I remember thinking—I know there were women there who were much older than me doing the exact same thing—‘What would my mother do?’ She would die. She would just fall over on the field and die. How is this possibly allowed?”

Danielle was not alone: Nearly half of people imprisoned in the U.S. work while incarcerated, a population disproportionately likely to be Black. Penal labor became a more significant part of the American economy following the Civil War; police would conduct sweeps and make arrests of Black men when plantations needed additional labor for planting, cutting and harvesting crops. Today, a majority of incarcerated workers perform “institutional maintenance,” which includes tasks like mowing the compound lawn and mopping floors. A relatively small number of others work in “correctional industries,” manufacturing things like license plates, sewing American flags and—as in Danielle’s case—harvesting vegetables that are later sold for a profit. All seven states that don’t pay for non-industry labor are in the South, which can reach dangerously hot summer temperatures.

Even indoor prison work can be dangerous, as 13 states—most of them in the South—do not equip prisons with air conditioning. As Time noted in 2016, more than 120,000 beds in Texas’ criminal justice system do not have air conditioning, while “less than 1% of free Texans live in a home without air conditioning.” OSHA recommends indoor temperatures between 68?76 degrees, and Texas county jails must be between 65?85 degrees—but not Texas state prisons.

While there have not been any assessments of the occupational health of incarcerated workers, it is well documented that heat-related illnesses are a general problem for people in prisons, even when they are not working.

Anecdotal evidence of heat-related problems inside prisons provides additional insight. In a first-person account for The Marshall ProjectTimothy Bazrowx described being beaten with a pipe and how a field captain shot at his feet during his first day of work in the fields. In 2017, The Daily Haze published a video of incarcerated workers screaming for help inside of a St. Louis workhouse as temperatures broke 100 degrees. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, a group of grassroots advocates, said it is “common for prisoners within [the Florida Department of Corrections] to be routinely denied adequate food and safe drinking water, especially those who go outside the gate on work crews. They are never given enough to eat and are forced to work in all conditions despite injury, sickness, brutal temperatures.”

Andrew, a 31-year-old who has been incarcerated in Florida since he was 17, says confined laborers are routinely dehydrated on the job. Andrew says his first mandatory prison job, in 2006 at age 18 in Hamilton Correctional Institution (HCI), consisted of mowing the swampy compound lawn using a dull-bladed non-electric push mower in cloth shoes with poor soles from 8 a.m. until the end of the day and/or job completion alongside a group of other men. The closest large city to HCI, Valdosta, Georgia, had an average high of about 92 degrees during Andrew’s first summer on the job. The confined laborers were generally given water in the mornings, according to Andrew, but the igloo cooler was empty within an hour and a half. During his time on the job, he frequently witnessed people collapsing from fatigue, he told In These Times. And sometimes, he says, the simple act of taking a break resulted in violent discipline: “The officers will come and they’ll put you in handcuffs … and a lot of times the handcuffs turn into you getting slammed on the floor,” Andrew says.

Limited strides to cool prisons in Texas have been made through civil litigation. After four years of litigation, in May 2018, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) agreed to install air conditioning in the housing sections of Wallace Pack Unit, which houses many elderly and vulnerable prisoners. As recently as August 9, however, Federal Judge Keith Ellison accused TDCJ of not fully complying with the settlement.

The suffering endured in the heat, which will worsen with climate change, is stoked by cruelty. “Despite the heat and terrible conditions we lived in—basically, sleeping in a sauna—it was so much more than that,” says Danielle. “It was like [the guards] got a thrill out of making us feel we were lesser than people.”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.


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