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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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How Offices Are Tackling The Change In Security Demands

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The conversation about workplace security is not a new one. However, with the evolving demand for health-conscious solutions, the discussion of office security has taken a new turn. 

Remote work and in-office safety precautions to combat COVID-19 has triggered a movement of flexible and resilient workplaces. Employers and employees alike will no doubt see a shift in security and operational protocol in the very near future. Below, we’ll discuss how offices are preparing for just that. 

The Shift to Identity Security 

Network security refers to software – whether it be on-site or otherwise – that sets the security parameter for access authorization. What this means is that a security system grants authorization based off of an identity that the network assigns each particular individual. This identity is associated with different permissions, access, etc. New security standards made possible by new technological advances, however, are finding it more secure to associate authorization with individual identity as opposed to one that is network-assigned. 

Identity security can be assigned to any credential, such as a mobile phone or a biometric characteristic. This eliminates the risk of a physical security breach from a lost, stolen or cloned key card. Cloud managed systems make it easy to assign security permissions and authorizations to any identification credential they choose. Further, system administrators are able to change those permissions of their own volition as opposed to interacting with a third party system operator or hardware. 

When it comes to visitor management, cloud-based office intercom systems also have the capacity to assign identity to visitors within the same platform for a comprehensive access database. 

Advanced Cybersecurity for Remote Work 

Cybersecurity is a constant threat for businesses. When employees are working from the office, they use devices and protocols that are secured with the latest layers of physical and electronic security. But remote work often means that employees use personal devices and public Wi-Fi networks that can expose sensitive data to vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can result in costly data breaches and system compromise. 

Companies are taking a proactive approach to thwart the data breach and liability challenges associated with remote work. Increasing awareness and sensitizing users on potential dangers is a great first step. Other measures include educating remote workers on preventive best practices, and implementing strict password policies with two-factor authentication. 

Coworking Spaces 

Coworking is a new take on the traditional office model. It’s incredibly flexible, convenient, and has shown to be very popular, yet there are still security challenges that need to be ironed out. 

A 2020 Clutch Survey shows that 23% of users in a co-working space are concerned with security and safety issues. To rectify this, coworking space owners and operators are allocating unique credentials and Wi-Fi passwords to users. Coworking users are also being provided with a security policy as part of their sign in agreement. 

When it comes to physical security, coworking spaces are adopting advanced, secure visitor management-like models for temporary access. This approach perfectly aligns with the primary idea behind the coworking model. 

Touchless Access Control 

Office security must ensure employee wellness in addition to physical security. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to mitigate health safety risks in the office setting. Along with CDC guidelines such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing, offices are leveraging technology for a more health-conscious approach to security. Touchless access control solutions are being used to reduce the need to touch high-use surfaces at entrances, exits, and elevators. This technology facilitates a frictionless and touchless access experience that encourages social distancing by reducing bottlenecking and mitigates the spread of disease. 

Conclusion

Security will continue to be a discussion among the workplace, and companies that join that conversation to utilize the latest technology and trends will remain resilient and foster business continuity. As offices move to tackle the shift in security, employees can do their best to educate themselves on the changes to come and how they work in order to create the most secure environment possible. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Haley Fox has several years of experience as an Employment and Labor Paralegal, specializing in specialty occupation workplace visas and employer compliance. She currently works with Swiftlane to advocate for workplace innovation and safety. 


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Detroit Bus Drivers Strike over Violent Attacks

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Detroit bus drivers, the first essential workers in the country to strike for safety during the pandemic, pulled a wildcat work stoppage again Friday, angry over escalating violence against drivers. Often the attacks are triggered, they said, by a driver’s request that a passenger wear a mask.

Drivers returned to work this morning with a promise of physical barriers to be constructed between driver and passengers. The city will also hold de-escalation training for drivers and said it would decrease police response time and increase the visibility of law enforcement on buses.

The work stoppage was triggered by the suspension of a driver who was captured on video punching a passenger—though the video does not show the events leading up to the driver’s self-defense. The passenger had declined to wear a mask, then approached the seated driver, snatched away a barrier chain, and raised his fist.

“‘Do I have to wait for a punch and then react? What are the rules of engagement?’” Those are the questions Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert said he asked in negotiations with the city. “I don’t know if they wanted him to wait till he stabbed him or hit him. If someone is breathing in my face from two feet with no mask on….”

After the drivers’ March 17 strike, they won rear boarding of passengers and a distance of at least 10 feet between them and drivers, with masks mandatory. “Once you break that barrier, you’re not coming up there to talk to me,” Tolbert said. “I’m telling you I’m waiting for you to comply, you should not be running up on me.”

Tolbert said drivers have seen “a rash of assaults, weapons being pulled, females being accosted, drivers being attacked and not being able to defend themselves. If I ask about a mask now I’m going to be abused verbally and sometimes physically.

“The membership just said they were tired. They keep in touch between the two terminals, west side and east side. Neither the department nor the city was protecting them. “

Tolbert called such incidents a “daily occurrence. Things the outside public would abhor, we think it’s just another day at DDOT. We can’t keep living in fear. The department should not want that.”

After weekend negotiations members voted by 89 percent to return with a new Memorandum of Understanding.

VIRUS IN THE AIR

More than 50 Detroit bus drivers have contracted the coronavirus; five have been ventilated and one, Jason Hargrove, died—a few days after posting complaints about a passenger who coughed on him. Tolbert himself had the virus early on, and two former Local 26 presidents also died from it.

Detroit bus drivers haven’t gotten hazard pay since June, while those in a different ATU local who operate lines that run to the suburbs (SMART buses) get an additional $7.50 per hour.

The drivers’ earlier strike won free rides for passengers, to minimize driver-passenger contact; cleaning protocols and hiring of cleaning staff; gloves, wipes, and masks; and available restrooms, given that restaurants were closed.

“We’re not satisfied till we can go to work and not be subject to that abuse,” Tolbert said. “We want to feel the same kind of safety on the bus as they feel sitting in their offices.

“I refuse to have another conversation like I had with Jason Hargrove’s wife.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


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What Does a “Safe Return” to School Look Like? Ask Teacher Unions.

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Powerful elites are willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of millions to feed their own profits. Teachers are fighting back.

Demands for stu­dents and edu­ca­tors to return to in-per­son school­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic are com­ing from Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, both claim­ing the return is nec­es­sary not just to pro­vide high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, but to save the econ­o­my and get par­ents back to work. The nar­ra­tive con­scious­ly exploits the needs of par­ents who may not have health­care and who rely on pub­lic schools to care for and edu­cate their chil­dren while they work. It pits par­ents, stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against one anoth­er, using (or ignor­ing) sci­en­tif­ic data to suit the polit­i­cal pur­pose of mon­eyed inter­ests?—?the bipar­ti­san project of destroy­ing pub­lic schools. 

When Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy DeVos tweets that par­ents ?“need real options for edu­ca­tion this fall” and #School­ChoiceNow?—?with­out pro­vid­ing the equip­ment, con­di­tions or funds need­ed to make schools safe?—?the real mes­sage is clear. The Right is using the push to reopen as a way to inten­si­fy the pri­va­ti­za­tion and mar­ke­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion, boost prof­its in the edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy sec­tor and erode trust in pub­lic schools. 

In response, teach­ers’ labor activism?—?wide­spread and robust in recent years?—?con­tin­ues to emerge. Teach­ers orga­niz­ing on social media have cam­paigned for var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic stan­dards to trig­ger reopen­ing; #14DaysNoNewCases, for exam­ple, demands that cam­pus­es only reopen after going two weeks with­out Covid-19 infec­tions. The Demand Safe Schools Coali­tion wants class sizes lim­it­ed to 10 to 15 stu­dents, ven­ti­la­tion that meets guide­lines from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, clean and social­ly dis­tant school trans­porta­tion, sup­plies of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and ample Covid-19 test­ing. Activists in dozens of cities ral­lied August 3 for these and oth­er demands, resist­ing hasty, under­fund­ed and unsafe reopen­ings that impose harm, espe­cial­ly on low-income stu­dents of col­or. The cam­paign #Only­When­ItsSafe advo­cates reopen­ing only if it is ?“equi­table and healthy for every­one,” in the words of Boston Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Jes­si­ca Tang. 

For many teach­ers union activists advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice, an ?“equi­table” school is one that can address the full range of human needs required to edu­cate all chil­dren well. Chil­dren who are hun­gry and on the verge of evic­tion?—?or liv­ing in tem­po­rary shel­ters?—?can­not be expect­ed to suc­ceed aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, whether remote­ly or in per­son. An equi­table school, for exam­ple, would sup­port the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in its call to replace police with coun­selors, nurs­es, social work­ers and restora­tive jus­tice per­son­nel. It would also sup­port the can­cel­la­tion of rents and mort­gages, a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions and fore­clo­sures, and direct cash assis­tance for the unem­ployed and those unable to work. The nation’s sec­ond and third largest teach­ers unions, in Chica­go and Los Ange­les, helped orga­nize protests against finan­cial tar­gets like the Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Fed­er­al Reserve, the Board of Trade and big banks, call­ing for inter­est-free loans and high­er tax­es on the rich to fund safe school reopenings. 

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) have ver­bal­ly sup­port­ed some of the movement’s demands. For exam­ple, AFT has endorsed a union local’s right to strike when nec­es­sary to pre­vent reopen­ings that endan­ger lives. But both unions have also embraced the push from Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley for edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy to con­trol learn­ing and prof­it from stu­dent data. The pan­dem­ic CARES Act, endorsed by both unions, encour­ages fun­nel­ing lim­it­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion fund­ing into soft­ware for dis­tance learn­ing, con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions. Ed tech cor­po­ra­tions and lib­er­al think tanks are now push­ing soft­ware for ?“per­son­al­ized learn­ing” and ?“social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment” that col­lects data that can be used for prof­it and sur­veil­lance— while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­tort­ing and appro­pri­at­ing ideals about mak­ing learn­ing indi­vid­ual and car­ing for children’s needs. Though some teach­ers are start­ing to use their local and state unions, like the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, to push back against the NEA and AFT posi­tions, the dan­gers of ed tech in reopen­ing plans and edu­ca­tion remain most­ly unrecognized. 

Pow­er­ful elites are will­ing to sac­ri­fice the lives and futures of mil­lions of peo­ple to feed their own prof­its. Even beyond the life-and-death risk to their per­son­al health, teach­ers’ strug­gles mark resis­tance to the per­pet­u­a­tion of this unequal, unjust society.

For a response to this piece, see ?“All the Options for School­ing Are Bad?—?But We Have to Choose Safe­ty” by Chan­dra Thomas Whitfield.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

About the Author: Jackson Potter is a Chica­go Teach­ers Union trustee, mem­ber of the Big Bar­gain­ing Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards Col­lege Prep.


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Unions see big new worker interest amid coronavirus threats

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Coronavirus is exposing the inequities in the U.S. economy, posing incredible danger to the most vulnerable workers. Republicans and employers are eager to take advantage of this moment of high unemployment and risk, but workers are also ready to try to wring some added power out of the crisis.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers told Politico. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

The attention to the importance of essential workers has helped those workers—many of them in low-wage jobs—see the importance they’ve had all along, and expect that other people will see it, too.

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” one local union leader said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”

That’s translating to a rush of calls to union locals from workers asking how they can join a union. “I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” the Chicago Federation of Labor’s Bob Reiter said. 

Democrats are pushing to set up a victims’ fund for essential workers, but what workers need more than compensation for being victims is power in the workplace: unions, strong laws, workplace safety oversight, and did I mention unions? (Many of those being policies Democrats also support, but need to see as part of this moment as well, and fight for them.)

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Capitalism vs. Safety, Health: An Old Story Again

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The U.S. president recently ordered meatpacking employees back into workplaces plagued by coronavirus. He did not order the employers to make their slaughterhouses safe. GOP-proposed legislation exempts employers from lawsuits by employees sickened or killed by coronavirus infections at workplaces. The GOP is mostly silent about requiring employers to maintain safe or healthy workplaces. Employers across the country threaten workers who refuse to return to jobs they find unsafe. They demand that employees return or risk being fired. Job loss likely means loss of health insurance for employees’ families. Being fired risks also losing eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Employers are now going to extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. Recently, New Orleans’ authorities and their contractors fired their $10.25 per hour garbage collectors after a short strike. The strikers had demanded protective equipment against garbage possibly infected with the coronavirus and also $15 per hour “hazard” pay. New Orleans replaced the striking workers by contracting for nearby prison inmates paid $1.33 per hour and individuals from halfway houses. Capitalism’s iron fist hits the working class with this “choice”: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labor with both.

Capitalism has always struggled to minimize outlays on workplace safety and health. Workers have protested this wherever capitalism became the prevailing economic system over the last three centuries. Upton Sinclair’s popular book, The Jungle, published over a century ago, exposed spectacularly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The 1906 passages of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act responded to public outrage over that industry’s working conditions. Coronavirus infection rates among employees of U.S. pork processing plants as high as 27 percent illustrate how employers forever “economize” on workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor was established in 1970. It sought to add more systematic federal government supervision and inspection to the regulations pressing employers to provide safe and healthy workplace conditions. Its mixed successes attest to the lengths employers will go to evade, weaken, or ignore efforts to enforce workers’ safety and health.

The profit-driven logic of capitalist enterprises incentivizes not spending capital on workplace safety and health conditions unless and until they deteriorate to the point of threatening profits. Capitalists and mainstream economics textbooks repeat endlessly that profit is every enterprise’s “bottom line.” Profitability measures each firm’s economic performance. Profits reward employers; losses punish them. Employers use capital to yield profits; that is their chief goal and priority. As objectives, workplace safety and health are secondary, tertiary or worse: obstacles to maximizing profits.

Capitalism has always sacrificed the safety and health of the employee majority to boost profits of its employer minority. That minority makes all the key enterprise decisions and excludes the employee majority from that decision-making. No wonder employers figure disproportionally among society’s rich, safe, and healthy, while employees figure disproportionally among the poor, unsafe, and unhealthy. Capitalism displays not only extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but also all their derivative inequalities: economic, political, and cultural. Pandemics expose and worsen them all.

In some times and places, capitalism’s iron fist wears velvet gloves. When profits are high and/or critics of capitalism ally strongly with its victims, employers may spend more on making workplaces less unsafe and less unhealthy. Otherwise, employers can and do spend less. If and when they fail to prevent government regulations mandating minimum health and safety standards, employers campaign to evade, weaken, and eventually repeal them. Employers usually repeat the same old arguments to block or undo regulations mandating safety and health standards. Such regulations, they insist, divert capital from productive uses (hiring workers) to “unproductive” uses (improving workers’ health and safety). Thus fewer workers will be hired, hurting the employee class. With such arguments employers have often succeeded and undermined workplace safety and health.

Capitalism’s long record of maintaining nearly constant unemployment—its “reserve army”—not only got workers to accept lower wages for fear of being replaced by more desperate unemployed. Unemployment also got employed workers to accept unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. Unemployment is a kind of torture by one class of another. It helps maintain lower wages and unsafe and unhealthy worksites. That is one reason why reduced labor needs are managed, in capitalism, not by keeping everyone employed but for fewer hours per week. That option is not generally chosen because firing a portion of the workforce—depriving those unfortunates of jobs—better disciplines workers to accept what they might otherwise reject.

In today’s situation, employers and the government, equally unprepared for the virus, did too little too late to prevent a dangerous pandemic. Sudden mass lockdowns led to mass unemployment. Expensive reconfiguring for social distancing, mass testing, cleaning and disinfection, etc., might have rendered jobsites safe and healthy. Instead, employers and their political spokespersons press employees back into unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. A “reopening the economy” is ordered. Employers get to impose unsafe and unhealthy workplaces by reframing the process as a patriotic return to a noble, national “work ethic.” Employers are counting on this sham drama now.

Consider this historic parallel: capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere once regularly employed children as young as five years old. Their jobs’ safety and health conditions were mostly inadequate and often deplorable. Their pay fell well below that of adults. They suffered injury as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Schooling was neglected if not altogether absent. Yet capitalists insisted that economic well-being and prosperity required their access to child labor. Ending it would bring economic decline possibly “worse” than child labor. A reasonable “trade-off” was required. Employers argued that poor families needed and welcomed incomes from employed children. Employers also insisted, then as now, that they had spent all they could and all that was needed to provide adequately safe and healthy work conditions.

Working-class responses to child labor took time to develop the necessary understanding and political power. Once they did, child labor was doomed. Working-class parents confronted capitalists with a non-negotiable demand: overcome the horrors of child labor by ending it. Employers would have to find other ways to profit. Many did even as many others moved abroad where child labor is still allowed. They still do.

Today’s parallel non-negotiable demand: end unsafe and unhealthy workplaces. That requires differently organized workplaces. The majority, employees, must control their safety and health. It must be a higher priority than profit for the minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. Once again we meet society’s need for transition to a worker-coop based economy.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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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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Proper Chemical Safety Tips

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Employee safety is one of the top priorities in any workplace, but it’s elevated when chemicals are involved. Laboratories, pharmaceutical facilities, warehouses and other environments such as these carry additional risks. Some materials can release caustic vapors or cause serious burns if they come in contact with exposed skin. Spills can create hazards on the floor of a facility or require specialized equipment for cleanup.

Keeping people safe while they handle these chemicals may involve the use of safety gear, which has its own set of protocols. For all of these reasons and more, it’s crucial to take extra care when working in proximity to these substances. When it comes to creating a safer environment in this context, no point is too big or too small. Every action, from the big picture to the smallest detail, matters for protecting life and limb around these various hazardous materials.

From a macro perspective, it’s essential to have clear-cut protocols in place that detail precisely what’s expected of employees when handling chemical agents. Supporting those rules should be a regular training program designed to educate newer staff and reinforce safe practices in veterans. On a smaller scale, it is important to remember that even individual beakers and flasks should be inspected periodically for signs of wear. A hairline crack or other tiny flaw can lead to a leak or spill that could have disastrous consequences. Ensuring that all personnel are equipped with safety goggles, gloves, coveralls and other pieces of protective gear is another crucial element of a safe and productive workplace. Even something as simple as keeping all containers clearly labeled and on the appropriate shelves in storage areas can reduce the risk of accidents significantly. For more tips for working safely with chemicals, take a look at the accompanying infographic.

About EOC1: EOC1 is a leading provider of controlled environmental testing and certification services. For over 14 years, their experience covers a range of industries including hospitals, laboratories, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and more. EOC1 serves to help their clients meet their contamination control needs while meeting industry and regulatory requirements.


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