Biden Administration hampered in rolling out COVID-19 workplace protections
Joe Biden

U.S. workers continue to get sick and die from COVID-19 largely because the Trump White House refused to safeguard them with federally enforceable protections.

That isn't going to change immediately under President Joe Biden's executive order aimed at Protecting Worker Health & Safety because rules made by Congress say it takes time to implement life-protecting policies.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) should have moved months ago to establish an "emergency temporary standard" governing workplace protections in the time of COVID-19.

The Trump Administration did very little to protect people. Trump left office with no plan to distribute the vaccines for which Trump claimed credit.

Because of the incompetence, delays and inaction by Team Trump the pandemic has already killed more than 425,000 people in the U.S.—more Americans than died in World War II. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention now predicts the death toll will reach 500,000 people by March 1 and that deaths will continue for months to come.

Teamsters Union Plan

On Jan. 19, Trump's last full day in office, the Teamsters released a set of national legislative priories that include strengthening OSHA's enforcement capabilities, as well as establishing a new emergency temporary standard to deal with the coronavirus. OSHA has long been under attack by corporate interests who claim it adds costs to business, cutting into profits.

The Trump Administration did very little to protect people. Trump left office with no plan to distribute the vaccines for which Trump claimed credit.

A year ago a new emergency temporary standard was urged by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor. In a letter to then Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Scott said that OSHA's infectious disease standard had been left to "languish" for about a decade. "OSHA must take swift action to protect healthcare workers, and by extension, the American public," Scott wrote.

OSHA Failing Workers

"The safety of America's frontline healthcare workers and, by extension, the health of the entire nation will depend on OSHA's ability to ensure the safety of the nation's health care infrastructure," Scott wrote. "Absent timely action, OSHA will be failing frontline healthcare workers, its mission, and the nation."

That sense of urgency, coupled with the botched rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program, has only grown more acute with time. Still, there is a process, and it could be another two months before OSHA, its budget well below what is needed to protect workers, establishes the kinds of enforceable workplace protections that Trump didn't enact.

"We want more, of course — we know that there is an extreme amount of urgency," Jessica Martinez told me. She is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which plans to release its own national agenda for worker health and safety on Feb 3.

"There is a process of setting a standard and we hope that it moves quickly through the bureaucracy of government," she said, acknowledging how procedural rules hinder the speed with which the Biden administration can act.

Labor groups last year called for action from the Trump Administration. The failure to act contradicted Trump's inaugural address promise that "I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down."

States Act on Their Own

Several states decided not to wait for federal action. They moved earlier to expand worker protections in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. California established a new emergency standard for COVID prevention on Nov. 19. A new Virginia work-safety rule takes effect this week, but without paid leave provisions like the California law.

Although more than 25 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide attest to the need, insiders argue that Biden is prohibited from circumventing required analysis and outright directing OSHA to establish a new emergency standard because employers would only challenge its validity in court.

"There is nothing on paper at this point that makes any of this proposal enforceable," Martinez conceded. "Now, with that said, I think that it's important to note several factors: One is that the government has been intentional about including these guidelines — something we have not heard from the former administration. Second, there is some real leadership that has been announced — folks that have been committed many years to understand the importance of engaging workers, worker advocates and the process of putting priorities around worker safety and health."

In addition to issuing the executive order on Protecting Worker Health & Safety on his first full day as president, Biden also tapped three people with extensive backgrounds in worker health and safety to protect workers. Jim Frederick will be OSHA's deputy assistant secretary; Chip Hughes as named deputy assistant secretary for pandemic emergency response; and Ann Rosenthal was appointed senior advisor.

"We're hopeful that with this leadership it is a step in the right direction and there will be a more concrete commitment to making many of these processes more enforceable," Martinez added. "Also, some clear guidance in ways that allows workers to have a seat at the table."

Interest in workplace safety and competent leadership have never and likely never will be enough to safeguard American workers, however. That is going to take the kind of "street heat" from working people that earlier this month compelled the California State Assembly to introduce a bill aimed at protecting fast-food workers and the organized labor action that secured a roughly 10% raise for members of Teamsters Local 202 working at the Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City.

"Only strong worker participation is really going to get anyone anywhere," a congressional aide with extensive knowledge of OSHA's operations recently told me. "It's harder than just snapping fingers — nothing happens by itself in Washington."