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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—Including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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From Carl’s Jr. to a gay club, Oregon workers suffered in the heat, this week in the war on workers

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Workers suffered during recent heat waves around the country, and hitting the Pacific Northwest especially hard. We’ve talked about the need for heat protections for farmworkers, but they’re not the only ones.

HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson looks at the heat complaints to Oregon OSHA, finding that restaurant workers were hit particularly hard. According to a complaint from a Carl’s Jr., “The restaurant management is forcing employees to work without air-conditioning in dangerous heat. The temperature in the building is at least 100*F. Employees are covered in sweat, and are showing signs of heat exhaustion.” At a Burger King, “110+ Degrees in the kitchen over the past few days. The AC system is broken and the employer will not fix it. This is when it’s been 101+ outside. Employees are forced to work nonetheless, no matter the heat hazard.”

It wasn’t just farmworkers and restaurant workers, either. The complaints Jamieson reviewed included a carwash, a cannabis dispensary, a canvassing agency that sends people out to fundraise for nonprofits, and dancers at a gay club. Clearly as climate change makes extreme heat a more frequent occurrence, workplace safety regulations and enforcement are going to need to catch up.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Black-owned distillery embraces its workers’ union, this week in the war on workers

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

When workers at Du Nord Craft Spirits decided to form a union, joining UNITE HERE Local 17, the company voluntarily recognized them without any delay and in fact publicized the occasion itself. Du Nord bills itself as the first Black-owned distillery in the United States.

“The production staff of Du Nord Craft Spirits chose to form a union because we enjoy and appreciate working here,” the workers said in a statement to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “We have showed up for the company by working through a pandemic, the closure of the cocktail room, an uprising, and committing to work as timelines and job duties fluctuated. The company showed up for us, most recently, by voluntarily recognizing our unionizing effort.”

“The workers knew that I would recognize a union,” owner Chris Montana told the Business Journal. Referring to organizing efforts at several other Twin Cities hospitality businesses, he said, “We hadn’t had a direct conversation about this unionization effort, but as previous places were unionizing I made very clear that if they decided that that’s something they wanted to do, I would recognize it.” Du Nord said he was ready to negotiate.

It’s not exactly going to turn around decades of declining union density in the U.S., but good news is nice to have every now and then, right?

This blog originally appeared at Dailykos on June 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Amazon makes tiny tweak to ‘time off task’ policy following report on high injury rates

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Immediately following a report that Amazon’s workplace injury rates were significantly higher than those of its top rivals, the online retail giant announced a tweak to its notorious “time off task” metric, which workers and advocates say is responsible for the punishing pace that leads to many injuries. The Washington Post looked at Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data and found that Amazon warehouses have a rate of 5.9 serious injury incidents per 100 workers, which is nearly double the rate of other retail warehouses and more than double the rate for Walmart warehouses. This despite a decrease in serious injury rates at Amazon warehouses after the company paused performance tracking to allow workers time to wash their hands and sanitize work areas during the pandemic.

In response to the Post’s questions, Amazon detailed an array of efforts to improve injury rates at its warehouses, including “ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few,” a company spokeswoman told the newspaper. What those efforts notably did not include was relaxing the speed requirements placed on workers that lead to so many of those injuries, at least outside of pandemic safety measures.

But on Tuesday, via a blog post by Dave Clark, CEO of its worldwide consumer division, the company made two announcements clearly designed to garner good publicity: It will stop testing employees for marijuana except for those in positions regulated by the Department of Transportation and will support federal marijuana legalization, and it’s changing how “time off task” is calculated. The time off task metric “can easily be misunderstood,” Clark claimed, insisting that its primary goal “is to understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive, and only secondarily to identify under-performing employees.”

This is not how Amazon employees experience that, and in any case, constantly finding ways to make the “tools that people use to be productive” go faster is another way to make the workers go faster. “Starting today,” Clark announced, “we’re now averaging Time off Task over a longer period to ensure that there’s more signal and less noise—reinforcing the original intent of the program, and focusing Time off Task conversations on how we can help.”

That’s not a big enough change, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, in a statement: “After months of intense worker activity at Amazon workplaces everywhere, the giant tech is acknowledging that it must at least tweak its management system to soften the blow on workers who have the occasional ‘bad day’. But the basic system remains the same. This small step is welcomed but insufficient. What workers need is a real seat at the table and their voices heard.”

Let’s circle back to the top of this post and remember, we’re talking about a business with a serious injury rate nearly twice that of the industry as a whole and more than twice that of Walmart (which is not exactly known as a great employer). A small tweak is not going to do it. 

Amazon’s injury data also points to the need for stronger government enforcement. A DuPont, Washington, Amazon warehouse sported a serious injury rate of 23.9 per 100 workers in 2020, up from an already high 7.2 serious incidents per 100 workers in 2017. For those conditions, Amazon was cited by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, which specifically identified the following: “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders].” But the fine was just $7,000. Why would Amazon take the need for change seriously if that’s how much it costs? Instead, the company is trying to deal with its high injury rates as a public relations problem by announcing the smallest possible change to its policy. 

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Masks for thee, but not for me?

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Rebecca Rainey

What everyone’s thinking about this week: Should workers still be required to wear masks on the job?

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suddenly updated its guidance last week to allow fully vaccinated Americans to gather without masks indoors and outdoors, even if some in their group are unvaccinated, the agency created confusion about what that change means for the workplace.

Right now, it’s up to your boss to decide whether you need to wear a mask or not. The CDC’s guidelines are optional. (The Biden administration is working on mandatory workplace Covid-19 rules, but we’ll get to that later.)

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, warned that the CDC failed to consider the risks the new guidance creates for workers and that it now requires them to become “vaccination police” for customers.

And employers in the same sector are taking their side: “The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group, said the CDC’s mask announcement creates ambiguity since it doesn’t align with state and local orders,” Robbie Whelan and Sarah Nassauer reported for the Wall Street Journal. Some companies like Target and Kroger, as well as General Motors and Toyota, have decided to keep their own mask mandates in place for the time being.

BUT: Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, and subsidiary Sam’s Club said Friday it would stop requiring masks — depending on state and local rules — for fully vaccinated staff and customers, effective Tuesday. “Unvaccinated associates must still wear face coverings, per CDC guidance,” the company said. “Some associates may choose to continue to wear masks, and as part of our value of respect for the individual we should all support their right to do so.” Publix similarly changed its rules so that vaccinated workers and patrons don’t have to don masks.

The big takeaway: David Barron, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor, predicts that most workers in customer-facing jobs will likely still have to wear masks, despite the CDC’s change. He also warns that it will be “difficult to enforce” separate workplace rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, which large retailers have already started to implement.

Where’s OSHA? The switcheroo from the Biden administration, which came just a few weeks after the White House urged people to still wear masks in public, raises questions about the future of any mandatory Covid-19 workplace safety rules. These rules were expected to be issued by mid-March, but weren’t sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final review until April 26.

Workplace safety experts and attorneys say that rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are typically strongly influenced by CDC guidelines — and the CDC’s advice regarding masks has been changed twice by the Biden administration in less than a month.

WE KEEP ON WAITING: Once the OSHA rules clear the White House budget office, they will become public and go into effect. OMB has review meetings on the rules scheduled through May 24, meaning we’re still at least a week away from seeing them.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 17, 2020.

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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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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The federal worker safety watchdog is weeks behind on President Joe Biden’s deadline for the agency to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that experts say will fight the spread of the coronavirus and protect workers.

Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether such emergency rules were necessary, and it was widely assumed the department would recommend moving forward with them. But three weeks later, newly minted Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is asking the agency to continue reviewing the rule.

“Secretary Walsh reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”

Biden campaigned on making Covid-19 guidelines — currently just optional recommendations for employers — into mandatory rules. Business groups and unions have been bracing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release an emergency workplace safety standard that would immediately require employers to take steps to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The rule was expected to at least mandate CDC guidelines on mask wearing, which some industry groups have warned would create headaches for businesses in the states that have already moved to rollback social distancing and mask requirements for businesses. It also would likely require employers to develop a Covid-19 response plan, similar to a required fire drill, for how the businesses would respond if someone was exposed to the virus at work.

The delay is raising concerns among former workplace regulators and worker advocates, who fear Biden may be dropping an essential piece of his Covid-19 response plan, as well as sowing confusion in the business community.

“I’m concerned that there are administration staff who incorrectly believe that the pandemic is under control and that an ETS isn’t necessary,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration.

“The CDC director is pleading with the country to take precautions, but workers can’t take those precautions” without an ETS, said Michaels, now a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Business groups are also scratching their heads after broadly expecting the rules.

“I’m as in much of a befuddlement as anyone,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “This sounds like Secretary Walsh and the DOL are grappling with what everyone else is seeing — the increasing success of the vaccines raises serious questions about whether an ETS is justified, such as whether employees are still in ‘grave danger,’ and an ETS can be called ‘necessary.’”

The longer it takes for the Biden administration to release the rule, the harder it could be for the rule to stand up to legal challenges, according to Freedman and attorneys who specialize in workplace safety law.

OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.” But that justification could be slipping as the Biden administration rushes to get Americans vaccinated against the virus.

While Biden administration officials have been warning that more contagious strains of the virus are taking hold, the president has been moving to expand access to the vaccine and was optimistic in his last message to the nation, promising Americans a return to some sense of normal life by Independence Day.

Republicans, who have been broadly opposed to any mandatory safety rules, are criticizing what they see as a mixed message from the administration.

“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “The President claims every adult will be eligible for a vaccine in May and then argues an immediate ‘emergency’ standard is necessary to curb the crisis.”

“This politicized process highlights the Biden administration’s blatant incompetence and hypocrisy. The federal government must not add more uncertainty and bureaucratic red tape for job creators, workers, and consumers as we continue to emerge from this crisis.”

But worker-safety experts say that the longer the Biden administration waits, more workers will get sick with the virus and could die.

“We are deeply concerned about when the standard is coming out. Basically workers have been going for a year facing untold numbers of illnesses and deaths without just a basic agreement that employers need to create a safety plan,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It’s essential, it’s life saving and it needs to come out now,” she said. “We can’t wait another day for this.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 7, 2021. 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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On the Introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act to Protect Meatpacking Workers

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Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project:

“NELP applauds the introduction of the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, championed by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rosa DeLauro, which would protect the health and safety of meatpacking workers by suspending and prohibiting any line speed increases in meat and poultry plants during the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Act would halt any line speed waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration.

“COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the meat and poultry industry in the last year, and it continues to spread through the plants. Despite guidance issued in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that emphasized the key protective measure of social distancing, the companies operating the plants continued to require meat and poultry workers to work shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow through the entire pandemic. Stunningly, in the middle of the pandemic, as tens of thousands of meatpacking workers were getting sick and many were dying, the USDA gave permission for many poultry, beef, and swine slaughter plants to increase their production line speeds—thereby forcing workers to stand closer together rather than father apart.

“Workers, their families, and their communities—and especially Black and brown workers and other communities of color—paid a huge price when the meat industry failed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that this failure was associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases—and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths—just in the first few months of the pandemic (as of July 1, 2020).

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in addition to this being a workers’ right issue, this is also a racial justice issue. The meat and poultry industry is built on the labor of workers of color. The CDC estimates that 87% of all infections in the meat industry occurred among people of color in the industry.

“The Act will affect policies implemented by the USDA during the previous administration as follows: temporarily suspend line speed waivers in meat and poultry plants; block funding to implement line speed increases in hog slaughter plants; and require the issuance of an accountability report to document whether the industry implemented worker safety protections and to evaluate how the relevant agencies in the previous administration responded to the outbreaks of COVID-19 in the industry.

“This legislation is a landmark in the advocacy of meat and poultry workers, organizers, and communities that have been demanding safer workplaces and accountability for employers and government agencies that failed to put basic safety measures in place during the COVID-19 crisis. The voices and direct actions of these communities laid the groundwork for federal action.

“The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the racial inequities in housing, healthcare, and the workplace. Big Meat’s commitment to profits for a few instead of preventative and protective safety protocols to protect hundreds of thousands of meatpacking workers during the greatest public health crisis of our time exemplifies why it’s critical to hold both the industry and government accountable for practices and policies that endangered workers and their communities. Accountability must be a part of a just and inclusive recovery.

“The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is a critical first step toward ensuring worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with Congress and the Biden-Harris administration to secure safety protections for the nation’s meat and poultry workers by revoking all existing line speeds waivers and relinquishing any further rulemaking that increases line speeds in the meat and poultry industry; and by promulgating and enforcing a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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Labor watchdog backs calls for binding Covid-19 workplace safety standard, slams Trump’s policy

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The Labor Department’s independent watchdog recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration consider issuing Covid-19-specific safety rules employers would be required to follow, saying that would better protect Americans from exposure to the coronavirus.

The recommendation adds weight to calls by President Joe Biden, other Democrats and labor unions for the agency to issue such emergency protections, which business groups and many Republicans oppose.

In a report released Tuesday, the department’s Inspector General said mandatory rules “could be of importance” because it’s extremely difficult for the agency to cite employers for safety risks without them.https://953a1f8cee7a9b5ef151aee5a2980011.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If OSHA issued a Covid-19-specific emergency temporary standard, “employers would be legally obligated to comply with it,” the IG said, and OSHA inspectors “may not be hampered by a lengthy process” when it comes to proving a violation.

OSHA has already issued Covid-19 guidance under a January executive order from Biden and published numerous documents detailing ways that employers can protect their workers from exposure. But the guidelines are not enforceable and do not require companies to comply.

OSHA inspectors in area offices across the country told the IG that a coronavirus-specific safety standard would be helpful to identify safety hazards during Covid-19-related inspections and make it easier to issue citations.

“Guidance in and of itself cannot operate in lieu of an [emergency temporary standard] as an enforcement tool,” the IG report said.

The Trump administration took the position that a Covid-19-specific safety standard wasn’t necessary because the agency could use other safety rules, like its requirements to provide workers personal protective equipment, to police businesses during the pandemic.

Biden took a different approach with his executive order, which directed the agency to decide by mid-March whether it was necessary for OSHA to issue an emergency standard.

The agency, currently being led by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Frederick, released stricter guidelines in January for employers on how to protect their workers from the coronavirus.

But so far, there hasn’t been any sign of whether OSHA will issue a safety rule or simply release more non-mandatory safety recommendations for workplaces, although Frederick has said that the January guidance was “not going to be the last step in the process” of responding to Biden’s order.

The IG’s findings could help the Biden administration justify the emergency rulemaking, which Republicans and the business community have opposed, warning it could increase liability and costs for already-struggling businesses.

However, the IG’s audit Tuesday found that the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach at OSHA did not provide the level of protection workers needed during the coronavirus pandemic and left workers’ safety at increased risk.

The report noted that while OSHA has received an influx of safety complaints during the pandemic, the agency suspended most of its on-site safety inspections last year, instead opting for informal inspections that typically result in a phone call to the facility, putting employees’ safety at greater risk.

“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of Covid-19, a reduction of on-site inspections could result in more work-site accidents, injuries, deaths or employee illnesses,” the IG report said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 2, 2021. 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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Six dead in Georgia poultry plant liquid nitrogen leak, this week in the war on workers

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Six people are dead after a liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant and 11 others were hospitalized, with at least three in critical condition. Two of the people killed were Mexican citizens, and those injured included at least four firefighters.

“When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen,” the Associated Press explains. “That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.”

The Foundation Food Group plant, previously known as Prime Pak Foods, was cited for worker amputations in 2017.

”Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the six workers who tragically died and those who were critically injured in a preventable accident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a response. “This did not have to happen. Safety concerns have long been raised as a major issue in many poultry plants, and Thursday’s incident shows what can happen when those calls go unheard.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 30, 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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States become worker safety watchdogs as pandemic worsens

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States are increasingly bypassing the federal government and imposing their own rules to protect workers from the coronavirus, creating a patchwork of regulations that could serve as a blueprint for new national standards promised by President-elect Joe Biden.

Oregon last month began requiring employers to supply masks, develop infection control plans and notify staff of ill coworkers. California rushed out 21 pages of business mandates covering everything from proper ventilation and social distancing to testing, reporting and quarantine procedures. In New Jersey, more than 1,000 complaints of alleged workplace health and safety violations have poured in from workers in the four weeks since the state enacted its own new safety program.

In all, 14 states have instituted their own comprehensive restrictions as the federal worker safety watchdog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has come under fire for its lax enforcement during a pandemic that has turned America’s most mundane jobs into dangerous, frontline deployments.

Labor leaders and other advocates for tougher rules say the hands-off approach taken by President Donald Trump’s administration has put workers in harm‘s way, forcing the states to step in.

“It would be pretty hard to fall on your face as hard as OSHA has during the pandemic,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational health specialist at Worksafe, a statewide workplace advisory group in California that has pushed for new rules. “It’s easy to outperform OSHA right now.”

Experts say Biden could borrow heavily from the states that have crafted their own policies, and the most stringent local requirements could give the new administration a baseline for those standards. But negotiating with industry groups could take months, and labor leaders say any delay will only result in more cases and, in turn, more deaths.

report released Nov. 19 found that up to 8 percent of the early U.S. coronavirus cases could be rooted in outbreaks among workers at meatpacking plants. Large outbreaks of the virus, which has killed more than 250,000 Americans, continue to be linked to employers that hold important positions in the nation’s supply chain.

Some state-level business groups acknowledged the need for a nationwide standard, saying a jumble of state-by-state — and, in places, town-by-town — regulations has been difficult for employers to navigate. But, they say, the vast majority of companies are doing the right thing, and imposing too many regulations will hinder the country’s economic recovery.In the unfolding pandemic, economic crisis and reckoning on race, governors and mayors are shaping our shared future. Who are the power players, and how are they driving politics and influencing Washington?Full coverage »

“If a national standard isn’t feasible or isn’t well-written, it could be worse than the presently evolving patchwork,” said Rob Moutrie, policy advocate and workplace safety lead for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Critics say OSHA has done little to punish companies when their workers get sick or even die from the coronavirus. While the agency has cited more companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines, and OSHA has used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Megan Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said DOL is committed to protecting the country’s workforce during the pandemic, and OSHA has been “working around the clock to that end.”

OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that are enforceable and has issued guidance for employers, including additional resources for high-risk industries, like meat and poultry processing. Through Nov. 26, the agency has issued citations arising from 255 inspections for violations related to coronavirus, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $3,403,139.

Sweeney also said that earlier this year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that OSHA reasonably determined that a new emergency temporary standard is not necessary.

“Since that court ruling, OSHA has continued to rely on its preexisting authorities to keep America’s workplaces safe,” Sweeney said. “OSHA continues to investigate every complaint about workplace safety.”

While federal OSHA sets national standards, states are allowed to run their own occupational health and safety plans, so long as they are at least as stringent as the federal government’s standard. About half the states have their own plans. Those that don’t have separate plans found creative ways to enforce standards, using executive orders and rulemaking to set new rules without OSHA approval.

The new rules adopted by states are consistent in mandating things like social distancing, mask wearing and improved ventilation in workspaces. States are also making it easier for workers to know their rights and report any violations. Many states have taken punitive action on their own and imposed some hefty fines where federal OSHA has not.

State-level business groups say that while employers want to keep their workers safe, some of these restrictions have been cumbersome and at times unrealistic, particularly for smaller businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. There are not just the added costs of protective supplies, but the increased labor costs as well: Workers are being redirected to police how many people are in a store and routinely wipe down surfaces.

One way that Oregon made these regulations easier for businesses is by phasing in requirements. The state adopted a temporary rule in November that has several elements that employers must comply with, including developing infection control plans, improving ventilation and notifying workers when someone contracts the coronavirus.

Paloma Sparks, Oregon Business Industry vice president and general counsel, said her organization convinced the state to gradually implement new rules instead of imposing them all at once. Some of the requirements, like servicing HVAC systems, can be challenging for small businesses that won’t have someone on staff to do the work.

“We want to make sure our employees are safe and healthy, and we’ve been very clear about that point throughout,” Sparks said. “The difficulty is that at this point in the pandemic, you’ve got businesses that are really struggling, they have limited resources, their staff are exhausted.”

Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said he is hopeful the requirements will make a difference. Oregon had previously issued Covid-19 recommendations for employers to follow, but his union has seen countless examples of workers being “unnecessarily and dangerously” exposed to the virus.

The Oregon Health Authority found that, to date, workplace outbreaks of coronavirus have resulted in 11,139 cases and 61 deaths.

“There’s no question that there’s a correlation between cases on the rise, deaths from the virus, and the lack of workplace protections,” Trainor said.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for OSHA under President Barack Obama, said the incoming Biden administration should look to Virginia, the first state to issue emergency rules, and California, the most recent state to take action, as guides for creating national policy. Those states have some of the more comprehensive policies. She urged Biden to draft new standards as soon as possible.

“It’s an emergency,” said Berkowitz, who now works at the National Employment Law Project. “The only way we’re going to mitigate this disease is if we protect the workers at work.”

California has just implemented a stringent, 21-page emergency standard that covers everything from social distancing and ventilation protocols to employee notification and testing following an outbreak.

Robbins of Worksafe, the California group that lobbied for the emergency standard, said the state needed something that was more easily enforceable and gave clear expectations for employers.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Drive an appropriate speed for the conditions on the road,’” Robbins said. “It’s another to say, ‘You should go 35 miles per hour, no faster.’”

Some business groups have pushed back on the speed of California’s emergency rulemaking. Industry groups are already considering lawsuits to block the emergency regulation.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy released guidelines earlier in the pandemic related to worker protection. But a coalition of labor groups waged a six-month campaign urging the governor to take further action to mandate these rules, and create a process in which workers can actually report violations. Murphy eventually committed to signing an executive order that did just that in late October.

“Like so much else where Washington has failed to lead, New Jersey will step up to fill the void,” Murphy said.

About the Author: Katherine Landergan covers the state budget, tax policy and labor issues for POLITICO New Jersey.

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. 

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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