How will we know when it’s safe to go back to work? Workers and employers want to know.

Sabri Ben-Achour May 11, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
The medical definition of what's safe has been changing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

How will we know when it’s safe to go back to work? Workers and employers want to know.

Sabri Ben-Achour May 11, 2020
The medical definition of what's safe has been changing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Is it safe to go back to work? Workers want to know, and employers want to know, too, so they don’t get sued. More and more people will be asking this question as the economy reopens.

There is, however, no legally binding definition of what a safe working environment is when it comes to COVID-19.

“Workers across the country who are currently working are terrified,” said David Michaels, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of the George Washington University, and a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama.

OSHA sets the standard for what is safe in the workplace, but it doesn’t, for now, have a blanket legal standard for protecting workers from infectious diseases.

“And it’s unwilling to issue an emergency standard telling employers, ‘You must follow CDC guidelines, you must follow OSHA recommendations,’ ” Michaels said.

OSHA can inspect workplaces, and a spokesperson said it was aggressively doing so, and would consult CDC guidelines to figure out if a workplace is safe or not. Some states have stepped in and set their own binding standards.

“States, for example, like Pennsylvania, are requiring mandatory temperature checks for all employer-employee relationships,” said Gina Fonte, senior counsel at Holland and Knight. “Conversely, other states such as Texas, they take a less stringent approach.”

Further complicating the situation, the medical definition of what’s safe has been changing, says Karen Elliott, an attorney with Eckert Seamens in Richmond, Virginia, who advises employers.

“Everybody thought 3 feet was proper social distancing, then it moved to 6 feet,” Elliott said. “First it was no masks, then now it’s masks.”

A group of lawmakers in the House introduced a bill that would force OSHA to publish a temporary emergency standard to protect workers. Meanwhile, the uncertainty and changing standards around what is safe have employers searching for protection from something else: liability.

“If we can get a piece of federal legislation that says very clearly liability will only apply ‘if’ — you know, with a very clear standard — that that is going to give some predictability and some measure of comfort to employers,” said Linda Kelly, general counsel at the National Association of Manufacturers.

That’s opened up a new political battle line. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants some kind of liability protection in the next COVID-19 relief bill. Labor groups are vehemently opposed.

“I think it’s an outrage that employers and corporations are seeking to shirk their responsibility when workers on the frontlines of this crisis don’t have what they need,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union.

The desire for liability protection and national binding safety standards are in a way two sides of the same coin: a desire for certainty around the meaning of safe.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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