The Biden administration is planning tomorrow to release an emergency temporary standard (ETS) requiring workplace COVID-19 protections for health care workers. While that is certainly good news for health care workers, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expressed concern that such an ETS fails to provide other frontline workers such as grocery store staff, farmworkers, meatpackers and public transit operators with the same protection to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job. These workers are more likely to be low-income, immigrants and people of color who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“With highly transmissible variants posing a threat to public health, uneven vaccination rates, and the relaxation of previous requirements, this is no time to let down our guard,” said UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest. “Infection rates are declining, but the pandemic is not over. All workers deserve a safe environment with science-based protections from COVID-19. An emergency temporary standard is critical for protecting our health care workers, but it cannot leave behind other essential frontline workers. No worker should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”
California, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia have already developed and implemented an ETS, and 10 other states have adopted comprehensive, enforceable safety protocols to protect workers from COVID-19 according to the National Employment Law Project. But more than 35 states lack comprehensive protections. With spotty mask requirements and vaccination rates not where they need to be, a comprehensive federal workplace ETS —which has the status of a formal, enforceable regulation—would offer the best opportunity to protect workers at greatest risk nationwide, according to UCS.
On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to review the need for workplace COVID-19 protections. Over four months later, frontline and essential workers still need enforceable workplace protections, including provisions for personal protective equipment (PPE), adequate air ventilation, social distancing protocols, and the ability to quarantine when sick or exposed.
“President Biden pledged that his administration’s pandemic response would follow the science,” said Rest. “The science has shown that workplace-based outbreaks pose a significant threat to the health of workers, their families and their communities. A comprehensive ETS that covers all frontline workers will help limit the spread of the virus and keep our communities safe.”
Worker advocates have repeatedly pushed for federal actions to protect all frontline workers, and UCS has joined the Food Chain Workers Alliance and others in calling on the Biden administration to take steps such as prioritizing vaccinations of farmworkers and meat and poultry processing plant workers.
“At the height of the pandemic, corporations put profit over workers’ health, allowing COVID-19 to spread unchecked at many meat processing plants,” said Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs for the UCS Food and Environment program. “As a result, more than 90,000 U.S. food and farmworkers, and 10 percent of all meat and poultry plant workers, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly 400 have died.
“The past year has made clear the essential role meatpackers and farmworkers play in our food system,” he added. “They deserve to be protected. With public mask orders and vaccine uptake varying from state to state and business to business, a federal emergency temporary standard would ensure frontline employees have protective equipment and the ability to quarantine to safeguard themselves and others no matter where they live or work and help bring the pandemic to an end faster.”