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COVID-19 Looms Large On Workers’ Memorial Day; Pressure on OSHA to Act

April 29, 2020

By Naeisha Rose

New York, NY – Despite being inundated with more than 3,000 COVID-19 complaints since the outbreak began in January, the federal agency tasked with protecting American workers has, so far, failed to issue enforceable emergency guidelines.

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Workers’ Memorial Day is underscoring the essential nature of the American workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic – and why OSHA needs to step up and enforce real protections. Above: Workers’ Memorial Day ceremonies held in New York City last April.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental organizations took OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to task on Workers’ Memorial Day for its ongoing failure to live up to its standards during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Helping to lead the charge on Tuesday was Jason Walsh, the new executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. 

“This is a day to remember and honor those who died from work-related injuries and illnesses,” Walsh said during a press call with reporters this week. “This day was set on April 28, because it is the date when the Occupational Safety and Health Act created OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration, which took effect in 1971. But 49 years later, workers are confronting conditions that endanger their lives every day.”

Fatalities in the workplace in 2020, won’t be “falls from ladders,” according to Walsh, but from the failure to provide Personal Protective Equipment [Personal Protection Equipment] to essential workers as there continues to be new cases of coronavirus across the country. 

There were 315 confirmed new cases of the coronavirus in Connecticut alone on Tuesday, according to the state’s Gov. Ned Lamont. New York remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with 23,033 deaths so far.

“While this is happening, the federal organization charged by Congress almost 50 years ago with protecting workers is largely missing in action,” Walsh continued. “OSHA is treating essential workers, who, let’s be clear, are disproportionately people of color, as if they are expendable workers.”

OSHA has been forced under public pressure to put out advisory guidance measures, instead of putting its foot down and forcing companies to adhere to acceptable standards to protect workers from this contagious disease, according to Walsh, who is tired of the “lip service” of the federal government. 

“What this pandemic has brought to light is the reality that is facing working people everyday. The laws and systems to protect people in this country on the job are dangerously weak and it is well pass time to take action to strengthen them now,” said Walsh. “This is a life and death issue for essential workers and we are going to have to protect every worker.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, labor leaders and environmental organizations are demanding that OSHA and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia implement emergency standards by informing every employer to give employees information about their rights — which include whistleblower protections and using existing authority for inspections to ensure PPE protocols are enforced, as well as sanitation measures and the proper disposal of hazardous substances. 

“In 2017, Donald Trump said, ‘I will never apologize for protecting the safety and security of the American people,'” said Walsh. “I think he owes an apology to thousands of people and their families because he and his secretary of labor have utterly failed to protect American people during this crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Labor, believes that we have fallen short as a country to protect workers and are putting them in great danger. 

DeLauro became emotional thinking about the bad conditions her mother worked in at a sweatshop in New Haven, and the horrible situations that workers have to work in now. 

“The laws and systems to protect people in this country on the job are dangerously weak and it is well pass time to take action to strengthen them now.” — Jason Walsh, executive director, BlueGreen Alliance.

“We are calling on OSHA and the Trump Administration to address the most urgent threat facing working people today, the COVID-19 pandemic,” said DeLauro. 

As many as 16,000 health workers have been infected and 41 have died, according to DeLauro. 

“I’m tired of the word ‘guidance,’ I want mandating as opposed to guidance, which goes nowhere,” said DeLauro. “[OSHA’s] job is to ensure the safest working environment for every worker – from those on the food processing and assembly line, to every truck driver and nurse.”

Steelworkers are some of the essential frontline workers that are helping to keep the country afloat during this pandemic, according to John Shinn, international secretary-treasurer, United Steelworkers. 

“During this pandemic many steelworker members have been and continue to go to work in chemical plants, paper mills, hospitals, power plants and many other work places,” Shinn said. “Safety has been their number one concern.”

The Trump Administration has refused to use its authority to protect workers during the pandemic, according to Shinn. To address this failure, steelworkers will be supporting the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020 , which requires an emergency temporary standard for workers’ safety; no retaliation against workers for speaking up against conditions; protections for workers in the 24 states where employees are not covered by OSHA; give OSHA discretion not to cite hospitals that have equipment shortages and requires CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to track and investigate work related COVID-19 infections and make recommendations on needed actions.

“Most importantly, the standards for workplace safety must be based on science,” said Shinn. “Together, we must mourn for the dead and continue fighting for the living.”

April 29, 2020

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