As Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh awaits confirmation as US labor secretary, the department he would lead is mulling a major decision with significant implications for workers and businesses reemerging from the pandemic-stricken economy.
The clock is ticking on a Monday deadline set by President Biden for the Labor Department to consider whether new nationwide rules are needed to safeguard workers from COVID-19 and, if so, to issue them. Biden is pushing for quick action after the Trump administration declined to enact a so-called emergency temporary standard for coronavirus workplace protection measures, which could include requiring employers to provide high-quality masks and air-filtration systems.
That business-friendly approach is expected to change under Walsh as unions and worker advocacy groups have urged tough federal rules, which would be enforced by the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan adds $75 million to OSHA’s budget to help protect workers from COVID–19.
Walsh’s nomination was approved on a strong bipartisan vote last month by a Senate committee. But like some other Biden Cabinet picks, his confirmation by the full Senate has been slowed by work on the coronavirus bill and Republican delaying tactics. He’s not scheduled to be confirmed by the Monday deadline so the decision could be made by the department’s acting secretary or it could get extended until Walsh is in place.
Either way, new workplace protections are desperately needed as the pandemic stretches into its second year, experts said.
“This has just been an occupational health and safety disaster of epic proportions,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, which includes workers, unions, and community groups. “We know that exposure at work is one of the key ways people are becoming sick and even dying.”
The problem is even more dire for people of color. When adjusted for age, Latino and Black workers in Massachusetts had mortality rates more than four times higher than those of white workers as the pandemic took hold from March through July last year, according to a report last month in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
“There should be something in place to protect these workers,” said Devan Hawkins, a public health instructor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and the leader of the study. “Obviously we know workplaces have taken efforts to do that, but it’s been different efforts in different places.”
In the absence of federal coronavirus standards, Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states have enacted their own. But Sugerman-Brozan said the Massachusetts standards are minimal and focus on hygiene and social distancing. OSHA standards would set a new nationwide minimum for worker protections from COVID-19 as more workplaces reopen with the decline from the winter surge in cases and increased vaccinations.
“The secretary of labor has a lot of crises on his plate when he takes office . . . and I think one of his top priorities is to get out this standard and start enforcement,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a top OSHA official during the Obama administration who now heads the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project. “Had this been done earlier in the pandemic, I’m sure that the number of infections and deaths would have been greatly reduced.”
Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, urged Walsh at his confirmation hearing last month to move quickly to enact new coronavirus protections. He told her OSHA would be one of his top priorities.
“I find it really important that as we think about these standards . . . OSHA should not be looked at by business and saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is terrible, let’s not do that,’” he said. “This is about protecting their workforce. It is about protecting their companies.”
Walsh told senators that Biden wants to add more OSHA inspectors after their numbers declined significantly during the Trump administration. At the start of 2020, OSHA had the fewest number of inspectors in its history and total inspections conducted during the Trump administration were the lowest for any four-year period in at least the last quarter century, Berkowitz said.
About 70,000 coronavirus-related complaints and referrals have been made since the pandemic to OSHA or state workplace safety and health agencies in the 22 states that have them, according to OSHA data. More than three-quarters of those cases have been closed.
As of Jan. 14, OSHA had proposed a total of about $4 million in fines for more than 300 employers for violations of existing safety standards during the pandemic. But an analysis by Reuters last month found more than half the companies, including two meatpackers that had significant COVID-19 outbreaks, had appealed the fines and only about $900,000 had been paid.
Last spring, former president Donald Trump classified meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure and ordered them to stay open. But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor union federation, said the Trump administration didn’t set rules to protect those workers from the virus or use OSHA to enforce existing health and safety standards.
“The result was tens of thousands of meatpackers got infected with COVID,” Trumka said in an interview. “Instead of being essential, they actually treated them as if they were expendable.”
The AFL-CIO tried to get a federal court last year to force OSHA to issue new rules to protect workers from COVID-19, but the emergency suit was rejected. Trumka, who believes new standards are “absolutely essential because front-line workers are still getting exposed,” said he is confident Walsh will act.
“He really does understand what working people go through,” Trumka said of Walsh. “He understands the need for health and safety and that’s the difference between coming home and not coming home.”
A Labor Department’s inspector general report last month found that compared to a similar seven-month period in 2019, OSHA received 15 percent more complaints in 2020 but conducted 50 percent fewer inspections. “As a result, there is an increased risk that OSHA is not providing the level of protection that workers need at various job sites,” the report said.
Biden is pushing to reverse that. He signed an executive order on Jan. 21 directing OSHA to update its coronavirus recommendations, which it did last month, and to pursue new emergency rules. In the absence of federal rules, several states issued their own coronavirus measures. But OSHA rules would set a new nationwide minimum for workplace protections.
A Labor Department spokesperson said OSHA has been working on the matter since Biden signed his order and is “working to reaffirm the agency’s commitment to worker safety and re-establish trust that the agency is advocating for workers.” OSHA has held some virtual listening sessions to solicit feedback, including one attended by Drew Schneider, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
The group is operating under the assumption that OSHA will issue new rules and hopes they are consistent with coronavirus guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and are flexible to reflect varied risk levels at workplaces, he said.
“Our folks have learned firsthand what needs to be done to stop the spread at facilities,” Schneider said of manufacturers. “Different workplaces present different risks. A facility outside under an overhang presents a different risk than an emergency room in a hospital.”