Texas, Florida Oppose The Free Market: You know all that crap about the “free market” and job-killing regulations impeding the right of companies to run their business as they best see fit? Well, never mind. States like Florida and Texas suddenly believe that state governments should determine how businesses are run, especially when it comes to protecting their workers or customers from COVID-19. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that killed OSHA’s vax-or-test standard, the New York Times reports that the states of Texas and Florida are forbidding companies that want to protect their workers and customers from mandating that their employees or their customers are vaccinated. But “many employers, though, have found that the regulations can be a barrier to keeping their workers safe and businesses open.” According to Adam Orman, who with Fiore Tedesco owns L’Oca d’Oro, a restaurant in Austin with 25 workers, “Making a vaccine passport illegal seems purely political….It doesn’t give freedom to business, which is what most of the behavior from the state toward businesses during the pandemic has been.”
CalOSHA Has a New Chief: California Governor Gavin Newsome announced earlier this week that Jeffrey T. Killip, 62,has been appointed Chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health at the California Department of Industrial Relations. Killip has served as Acting Deputy Assistant Director of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries since 2021, Senior Manager of Education and Outreach Programs there since 2017 and also held a number of other positions with the state. The job had been vacant since former Chief Doug Parker was elevated to Assistant Secretary of Labor for federal OSHA last Fall. California is one of 21 states that run their own full OSHA programs, but CalOSHA has always drawn special attention not just because of the size of the state, but because the state has been out front on a number of issues that federal OSHA hasn’t gotten to yet. CalOSHA, for example has a workplace violence standard, an airborne pathogens (and COVID-19) standard and an outdoor heat standard. The state is also working on an indoor heat standard.
Brown Collar Workers: Speaking of California, the Los Angeles Times ran an excellent column by Shefali Milczarek-Desai, director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic and co-chair of the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona last week about how the COVID-19 Pandemic has exacerbated the already dangerous conditions that Hispanic workers labor under (heat, chemicals, musculoskeletal disorders, etc), and how OSHA has largely neglected their working conditions:
Meatpacking plants, factories and greenhouses employ many of America’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers. Many are immigrants and people of color laboring in crowded or otherwise hazardous conditions. The pandemic has shown how the front-line, essential work done by this “brown-collar” workforce is critical to keeping the economy and communities going. Yet on top of being at high risk of COVID-19 illness and death, these workers have always been exposed to higher occupational health and safety risks than those in other industries.
One of the reasons for OSHA’s neglect is lack of adequate funding and staff. A “subtler” reason is that OSHA “relies on worker complaints to determine which places to investigate and “the most vulnerable workers, however, rarely complain because of the ever-present threat of retaliation.”
Fast Food Violence: If you’re a dedicated reader of the Weekly Toll, you may have noticed some trends. Recently, several fast food workers have been shot and some killed. Teen Vogue has noticed the trend, noting in an article that “Based on 911 call logs retrieved via public-record requests, McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Jack-in-the-Box locations in California’s nine most populous cities saw at least 77,000 “violent or threatening incidents” between 2017 and 2020. And working conditions aren’t great otherwise, with low wages and sexual harassment on the job, understaffing, and being required to come to work sick with COVID. Assaults and harrassment over COVID protocols has made the situation worse. The good news is that “Fast food workers in West Virginia and the Milwaukee community of slain 16-year-old Harris-Brazell are joining the nation’s burgeoning labor movement and demanding better workplace protections.”.
Lessons From Korea: A new law will take effect next week in South Korea that make CEOs of large companies subject to a minimum prison term of one year or a fine of up to 1 billion won ($843,000) if fatal industrial accidents, including the deaths of workers, occur at smaller partner firms. Shipbuilding, construction, machinery and parts manufacturing companies are apparently “deeply concerned.” The new law stems from a “recent groundswell of public fury over the death of and critical injuries suffered by construction workers at an apartment complex construction site in Gwangju supervised by Hyundai Development Company (HDC).”
Working While Sick: No sick leave, short staffing, testing waits and new CDC isolation guidance means that workers are forced to go to work sick with COVID. According to a Los Angeles Times article, one worker, who called her boss to tell him that she was feeling sick and “probably had COVID-19” was told “Don’t worry, everyone has it, you can still work. Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone,” Even more troubling is that health care workers caring for society’s most vulnerable, are also being asked to work sick. Is this any way to protect workers, the public or end the pandemic?
Laboratory of the States: After the Supreme Court’s terrible OSHA vax-or-test standard decision last month, Terri Gerstein describes “more forward-thinking states can take decisive action” to protect workers from COVID-19. Gerstein is the director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. States can pass mask, and more general COVID workplace safety rules, such as the states of Virginia, New York, California and Washington have done. Sick leave requirements would also keep sick workers from feeling like they have to go to work sick. And last, but certainly not least, workers need to organize more unions to force change in their states and their workplaces.
Virginia — First to Worst? Meanwhile, the state of Virginia, which was the first state in the country to issue a permanent OSHA COVID standard protecting all workers, may be on the way to getting rid of that imposition to business if the state’s newly elected Trumpish governor Glenn Youngkin has his way.
Youngkin’s issuance of a first-day executive order downgrading a public school mask-wearing mandate to merely an option drew instant opposition and then a seven school system state court lawsuit. On that same first day, Youngkin ordered the state panel that oversees the writing of state occupational safety and health rules to review the workplace measure as well.
If the standard is withdrawn, employers will no longer be required to have workplace COVID safety programs, or require indoor masking or distancing or improved ventilation or even train workers. Because freedom. The poultry industry is delighted: Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, said that when the emergency standard was initially proposed in 2020, members believed the rule wasn’t needed because they were following CDC guidance. ‘We really still feel that way,’ Bauhan said.” The Virginia Health and Safety Codes Board meets Feb. 7 to consider if the rule should be withdrawn. They then have 14 days to make a recommendation to Youngkin.
Staying and Leaving at the White House: For all of you Washington insiders, the bad news is that Sharon Block, acting Director of the White House Office of Interagency and Regulatory Affairs since Day One of the Biden administration is leaving. OIRA is the “central authority” for all federal government regulations and is required to conduct a thorough review of all regulatory proposals and final standards. Previously, OIRA was known, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, as the place where regulations go to get delayed, weakened or killed. Sharon, who had previously worked for Senator Edward Kennedy and served at the Department of Labor and as an NLRB member brought a unique knowledge of workers and the importance of effective regulatory protections to OIRA. The good news is that we’re not losing her. She’s returning to her previous advocacy role, heading back to the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program.
Meanwhile, Biden’s chief labor advisor, Seth Harris, who had aspired to head the Social Security administration, will be staying at the White House “to help implement labor provisions of the new infrastructure law.” As might be imagined, the $1 trillion law has generated a great deal of interest by the building and construction trades unions about how the future contracts will pay workers wages and benefits in keeping with similar local jobs. And let’s not forget the safety of workers employed in the huge contracts. During the Obama administration, Harris was Deputy Secretary, as well as Acting Secretary. (Full Disclaimer: I worked with both Sharon and Seth at the Department of Labor during the Obama administration.)