Workers welcome OSHA emergency antivirus standard; GOP doesn’t
Mary Walsh, the Secretary of Labor who was himself for many years a leader in the Laborers union, has announced that 83 million workers covered by the new Biden administration OSHA standards will now have protections against the virus on the job and will get paid sick time if, despite those protections, they still get infected. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

WASHINGTON—Workers facing the fear and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus plague welcomed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s new emergency temporary standard ordering all firms that employ at least 100 people mandate anti-virus vaccinations for workers or weekly testing for the unvaccinated.

And if workers contract the virus, the firms must give them paid sick and family leave time to recover, OSHA declared.

But while OSHA mandated business protect its workers, congressional Republicans fumed. They claimed it would cost firms too much money and profits. Their statement never mentioned workers’ suffering. They vowed to overturn the standard, and ban a permanent one, too. “Job creators”—GOP jargon for businesses—”should not be forced to become the vaccine-and-testing police,” screeched their spokeswoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

The OSHA standard, unveiled Nov. 4 and published the next day, will fully take effect on Jan. 4, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said. OSHA estimated the standard will cover at least 84 million workers, though it expects millions more will follow as other firms voluntarily obey.

“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” said Walsh, using the virus’s official name.

“We must implement this emergency temporary standard to contain the virus and protect people in the workplace against the grave danger of Covid-19. Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

Walsh may be understating the trauma of workers seeing colleagues sicken and die from Covid-19, deaths OSHA hopes to reduce and prevent.

“Covid-19 hit our nursing home hard,” said Ann Barden, a member of SEIU 1199NE Healthcare and a dietary aide and cook at the Trinity Hill Nursing Home in Hartford, Conn., during a zoom press conference the week before on mandating vaccinations.

Given substandard gowns

“We were given substandard gowns and told to share masks and coveralls. The company sprayed the masks with cleaning chemicals” so they could be reused. Those chemicals sickened workers, too—and shared masks go against federal guidelines.

“Half of our workers got sick and many died,” Barden told the session, convened by the pro-worker National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA investigated and fined the nursing home and three others in its chain $60,000, she said.

Besides mandating vaccinations, and weekly anti-coronavirus testing for the unvaccinated, the emergency standard declares firms must offer paid family and medical leave to workers who test positive until they recover. It also requires face masks within workplaces.

Firms must “determine the vaccination status of each employee, obtain acceptable proof of vaccination status from vaccinated employees and maintain records and maintain a roster of each employee’s vaccination status,” OSHA said. In return, workers must give firms “prompt notice” when they test positive.

OSHA’s standard also covers all health care workers, public and private. That drew cheers from two top unions for those workers, the Teachers (AFT), who represent school nurses, and National Nurses United. NNU wants OSHA to make the standard permanent.

“The Covid-19 health care emergency temporary standard meant mandatory requirements for employers, with penalties for those who violate those requirements, on infection control protections in health care settings,” NNU President Deborah Burger wrote the agency.

“It was promulgated thanks to unrelenting union nurse advocacy over the extensive opposition of the hospital industry and other corporate interests. Letting it expire without adopting a permanent standard would mean more transmission of the virus, more hospitalizations, and more deaths from Covid-19.”

Several questions remain unanswered. One was who will pay for vaccinations. OSHA Administrator Jim Frederick said it mostly would be insurers, but it depends on workers’ individual policies, or their unions’ health care coverage negotiated in contracts.

Another is what would happen in about half the states where federal OSHA does all the enforcement. In those states, there’s no coverage for state and local government workers. An earlier Biden mandatory vaccination/weekly-testing executive order covers all federal workers.

Barden and the other workers, marshaled for a zoom press conference by the council a week before, want the protection.

Happy Allen, a United for Respect member who used to work at a PetSmart store in Tennessee, said safety conditions went downhill thereafter the Wall Street venture capital firm BC Partners bought the chain. That slide included refusal to protect workers against the virus.

When it hit they got nothing

“When Covid hit, they didn’t give us personal protective equipment (PPE) and we couldn’t even sanitize properly,” he said, using the official name for the virus, which has now killed 750,831 people since recognition of the pandemic 18 months ago.

“We weren’t allowed to wear masks or have social distancing. There was a lot of denial in upper management” of the impact of modern-day plague. “And there was no paid leave” for workers who tested positive. “People feared getting written up.”

The bosses and the venture capitalists “were willing to sacrifice” workers, quality and safety “for a profit,” he said.

“We need real mandated regulations for enforced distancing, improved” separation between workers and at work stations “and protection from retaliation.”

Marielena, a Honduran woman on the night shift at a North Carolina poultry processing plant—who used a pseudonym because of past corporate retaliation against other workers–said workers there don’t even have enough time “to disinfect their hands” during 30-minute meal breaks.

“The bosses did not care. We still don’t have any physical distancing. They put sanitation stations up, but they are more for show than to be used. Our supervisors pressure us to use every available minute to chase chickens and slaughter them. There is no time or support for observing safety rules.

Every one of us in my plant—every single worker—has been infected with Covid-19.”

OSHA Administrator Frederick, a former top safety and health official for the Steelworkers, said OSHA would rely on worker complaints and on spot inspections to catch rulebreakers, as it does for other safety and health violators. “Serious” violations would draw fines of up to $13,600 each. “Serious and willful” violations would be fined up to $136,000.

Left unanswered was what OSHA would do if entire “red” states, led by their right-wing governors and legislatures, ordered businesses not to enforce physical distancing and/or mandate workers either be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Frederick stressed most businesses already follow federal anti-virus guidelines to protect their workers. But if the Republicans, led by virulently anti-worker Rep. Foxx, had their way, nobody would be protected at all. Too much of a burden on employers, she squawked.

The Republicans also vowed to introduce legislation, under the Gingrich-era Congressional Review Act, to kill OSHA’s anti-virus standard. The CRA is particularly dangerous to workers: It not only nullifies a worker protection standard but bars the Labor Department, including OSHA, from ever addressing that particular issue again.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.