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What is the issue?

The issue is that we have a global pandemic that is having a devastating effect on our economy. We talk as though this is affecting everyone equally, but it is not. Those who are typically disadvantaged feel the brunt of this health crisis that is fast becoming an ‘everything’ crisis. 

The disparity between the haves and have-nots is expanding, and we’re able to see just how one-sided employer-employee protections are. We have a sense of social safety nets and worker protections, but in reality, these are flimsy at best. 

Global lockdowns are closing businesses and jeopardizing jobs on a broad scale. We can see just how vulnerable many workers are, not only to job-loss but to exposure to unsafe and inadequate working conditions. Living from pay-check to pay-check is difficult at the best of times, but during a pandemic it is disheartening and dangerous. 

Businesses are trying to stay afloat while enforcing ever-changing health and safety guidelines for reducing the spread of the virus. This circumstance has led to shortcuts in health and safety and a general disregard of workers’ rights and protections, particularly in specific lower-level jobs.  

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What’s the plan?

The plan to re-open the country is a bit of a question. While certain workers have been required to remain on the job – health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes, transit workers, delivery people, meatpacking plants, and ‘essential’ retailers – there has been a conspicuous lack of genuine effort to make these people safe. Many of these people have had to continue to work with low pay and limited benefits. Sadly, workers have lost their lives trying to save their jobs. 

The current administration has asserted the grave importance of ‘re-opening the country’ without ensuring workers’ safety. They have made it sound as though re-opening is the same as having a healthy economy. The plan appears to establish guidelines that hopes employers will have the money and understanding to adhere to and get people out of their homes and back to work.

Federal Guidelines

Employers must come to understand the guidelines as issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), their state, and local agencies for the health and safety of their workers.  

Employers are required to survey their facilities in the context of OSHA’s pandemic-related standards. OSHA says that employers must have a work environment with no recognized hazards likely to cause a worker’s death or serious injury. And, of course, OSHA has released COVID-19 specific guidelines for the protection of workers.  

If a workplace hazard is discovered, the employer must provide adequate and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and training on using it properly. They must also ensure that employees use the equipment. 

Employers who do not comply are fined. The biggest violators have been those in health care and meatpacking plants.

Understandably, some guidelines are a challenge for some employers because they can be subjective. Further, as we learn more about the virus, guidelines change. For up-to-date information, check OSHA’s website and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website

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State Action

OSHA gives states the leeway to develop their own COVID-related guidelines, as long as those guidelines are ‘at least as effective’ as the federal ones. For instance, Virginia was the first state to add to its safety guidelines requirements for reporting and training. And the California division of OSHA has issued its own resources for employers

Many pre-existing health and safety rules can be applied to COVID-19. For instance, California’s OSHA has Aerosol Transmissible Disease standards, adopted in 2009, that protect workers from infectious diseases that may be inhaled in contaminated air. Although only particular health care organizations are required to follow this guideline, it may be useful as a guide for protecting workers in other industries.  

New York, which doesn’t have a state OSHA plan, has issued several executive orders, regulations, and guidelines from the New York State Department of Health to protect workers. There have also been measures approved by the state governor and passed by the state legislature.

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 Worker with mask, gloves, and PPE on.

Employees between a rock and a hard place

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many workers found themselves working in unsafe conditions with little choice. But now, workers who face the danger of contracting the virus have little recourse when required back at work. They are at risk, but with unemployment at historic heights, many feel they don’t have a choice. This is unacceptable. The workers’ compensation system for those injured or sick is broken and doesn’t offer real assistance.  

A better way to re-open

There is a better way to re-open America, where workers are adequately protected, and the economy can be healed. 

Emergency Standards and Stronger Enforcement

OSHA can issue new emergency standards for the enforcement of guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. This doesn’t have to be a new plan; it could build on existing standards. It should be broad enough to apply to many sectors or occupations and require each to create an exposure control plan to mitigate the risks.

Empower employees for their own protection

Workers need to be empowered to ensure that their work environments are safe for all. They need to have the authority to refuse to work under inadequate or unsafe working conditions without losing their jobs. 

Additionally, workers must be educated on their rights, have access to whistleblower hotlines, and there must be more penalties for businesses who retaliate against whistleblowers. 

Workers’ Compensation

Workers who contract the virus must have better compensation to prevent falling into poverty due to not being able to work. Proving that the virus was contracted at work is challenging, but California and Wisconsin have created a rebuttable presumption that the virus was caught at work. 

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Final thoughts

In addition to all of the above, unemployment benefits must improve, and jobs must be protected for workers who speak up about unsafe work conditions. We need policies put in place that protect workers and assist them in staying out of poverty. Many policies protect employers, but we must also protect employees. We all want the country to re-open, but we have to do it in a way that is safe for everyone and ensures we heal our economy as well.  

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