Biden’s nominee for OSHA chief fights GOP for virus standards
The pandemic has transformed workplaces across the country, but Republicans want to eliminate as many of the worker protections that have been added as they can. | Noah Berger/AP

WASHINGTON—Democratic President Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), California OSHA Director Doug Parker, spent his Senate confirmation hearing fending off Republican demands that Biden deep-six a union-pushed Emergency Temporary Standard to combat the continuing coronavirus pandemic—and that unions be barred from any standard-setting role at all.

Indeed, Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, was so adamant at the May 27 Senate Labor Committee session that he declared the pandemic is virtually over, an assertion Parker replied “is simply not true.”

Parker, who is also a former Mine Safety and Health Administration official, drew strong support from both the labor-backed National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and the AFL-CIO.

Parker promised that if approved to head OSHA, he would listen to all sides on health and safety issues, as he did after CalOSHA issued its own ETS days after the pandemic began early in 2020.

The Republicans criticized CalOSHA for that action. Parker replied by saying his agency “began with compliance assistance.” Nevertheless, CalOSHA’s own early anti-virus standard “saved lives.”

The issue of forcing firms to protect their workers from the virus, which has killed 592,501 people in the U.S. as of May 27, is important to workers, especially front-line workers such as nurses, meat and poultry plant workers, truckers, and grocery workers.

The lack of a standard was part of general non-enforcement of safety and health laws, a recent Labor Department Inspector General’s report concluded.

Before that, non-enforcement led National Nurses United and the AFL-CIO to campaign for a federal Emergency Temporary Standard to force businesses to battle the plague through protection plans for their workers and customers. OSHA sent such an ETS to Biden’s Office of Management and Budget on April 26. OMB has yet to release it.

The Republicans contended conditions have changed. Marshall said OSHA’s proposed emergency standard says the virus “still presents a great danger, which is simply not true.”

“We have taken changing conditions into account” Parker replied. The state’s standards board, now working on a follow-up permanent standard, “is considering the recent guidance” from the federal government on how to battle the virus. Guidance, however, is not a mandate, as NNU, NaCOSH and the AFL-CIO point out.

“But if OSHA were to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard, they’d be able to satisfy that legal requirement” of citing a great danger, Parker said.

He also said there’s still a need for it. “When you look at the fatality and infection rates among those who are not vaccinated, they haven’t improved in the last several months,” Parker told Marshall.

Labor Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other Democrats generally supported Parker and Biden’s other nominees, Taryn McKenzie-Williams to head DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, and Southern Illinois native Rajesh Nayak as Assistant Secretary for Policy. The GOP did not give them flak, other than saying the economy doesn’t need more federal aid. Murray did not set a date for a confirmation vote on the three.

Before the hearing, NACOSH issued a strong statement backing Parker, while the AFL-CIO endorsement came when Biden nominated him on April 9.

“Doug Parker has first-hand experience as an advocate for workers and as a regulator with responsibility to protect workers and the public,” said NACOSH co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez. “He will have a huge task ahead of him to restore the credibility of an agency that failed to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, with tragic results.”

“It’s time for a stronger OSHA” with enough money to hire more inspectors, tough standards to enforce and a commitment to protecting workers, she said.

“Every day, we talk to temporary workers, construction workers and others who are provided little or no safety training or protection by their employers,” Olga Morales, an organizer with New Labor, a New Jersey workers center, told NACOSH. “With new leadership, OSHA needs to step up its game, be proactive, and help workers understand their right to a safe workplace.”

“Like Doug, I got my start in the labor movement fighting for mine workers’ right to a safe workplace,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a Mine Worker, said. Taylor “has dedicated his life to advancing the cause of worker safety, because he understands this is a life-and-death struggle for working people in every industry and in every corner of the country.

“Doug’s leadership will help restore OSHA to its essential mission after four years of willful mismanagement and decay,” he added. That starts with the “long-overdue” emergency standard against “a still-raging pandemic.”

The Labor Committee’s top Republican, Richard Burr of North Carolina, demanded unions neither receive any advance notice of OSHA standards or have any role in decision-making. That’s consistent with the corporate campaign to defang and destroy OSHA, which has continued through its 51-year history.

Taylor gently turned Burr aside by pointing out that as CalOSHA chief, he listened to all sides on what to do next about the coronavirus—and most of the comments came from business. He said he would do the same thing, consistent with federal law, as OSHA chief.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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