COVID-19

OSHA takes a limited role protecting workers in pandemic

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 29, 2020
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President Donald Trump has declared that meat processing businesses are "critical infrastructure." David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
COVID-19

OSHA takes a limited role protecting workers in pandemic

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 29, 2020
President Donald Trump has declared that meat processing businesses are "critical infrastructure." David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The health and safety of many essential workers has been called into question by the COVID-19 pandemic, with meat processing workers in the spotlight as President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday declaring the businesses “critical infrastructure.” Several meat packing facilities have become coronavirus hotspots — thousands of workers have become sick and 20 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Keeping the labor force safe is the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the agency has taken a limited role during the pandemic.

The most important function of OSHA, according to its former head, David Michaels, who served in the Obama administration, is setting standards — rules that employers must follow. For instance, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the agency issued standards for bloodborne pathogens, which included the safe disposal of needles in health care facilities.

“As a result of that standard, every hospital room, every doctor’s office has a sharps container,” he said, referring to the secured boxes for discarded needles.

But it usually takes years of study and debate to come up with those rules. When there’s no time to waste, like in a public health emergency, the agency has the power to set temporary emergency standards.

OSHA hasn’t done that yet. While it has put out workplace guidelines that essentially say to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those aren’t legally binding like OSHA standards usually are, said Debbie Berkowitz with the National Employment Law Project.

“CDC guidance is advisory,” she said. “It’s voluntary. Employers do not have to follow it. They can choose to ignore it.”

Regardless of specific standards, under federal law all employers are legally obligated to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards,” said John Henshaw, who headed OSHA during the George W. Bush administration.

But when it comes to COVID-19, he said, “This is all new for everybody, so it’s kind of hard to argue it was a known hazard and you should have done something about it.”

When employers are suspected of violating OSHA standards, they’re subject to inspections and then citations. But the number of inspectors who enforce rules is limited, said Ann Rosenthal, a former top lawyer for the agency.

“It would take 165 years for them to get to every workplace in the country,” she said.

Inspections can be triggered by employee complaints. OSHA has received thousands of those since the pandemic began but has issued no citations to employers so far and has announced the agency will be limiting inspections to the highest-risk priorities like health care facilities.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s going on with extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s been weeks since President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum that was supposed to get the federal government back into the business of topping up unemployment benefits, to $400 a week. Few states, however, are currently paying even part of the benefit that the president promised. And, it looks like, in most states, the maximum additional benefit unemployment recipients will be able to get is $300.

What’s the latest on evictions?

For millions of Americans, things are looking grim. Unemployment is high, and pandemic eviction moratoriums have expired in states across the country. And as many people already know, eviction is something that can haunt a person’s life for years. For instance, getting evicted can make it hard to rent again. And that can lead to spiraling poverty.

Which retailers are requiring that people wear masks when shopping? And how are they enforcing those rules?

Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, CVS, Home Depot, Costco — they all have policies that say shoppers are required to wear a mask. When an employee confronts a customer who refuses, the interaction can spin out of control, so many of these retailers are telling their workers to not enforce these mandates. But, just having them will actually get more people to wear masks.

You can find answers to more questions on unemployment benefits and COVID-19 here.

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