Unions hope workplace safety rules are coming soon: ‘Some of these workplaces are atrocious’

Workers in Miami-Dade County. The new Biden administration is pushing for COVID-related workplace safety rules. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While top Florida lawmakers fast-track legislation to shield employers from COVID-19 lawsuits, unions that represent many of Florida’s 10 million workers say employees need their own protections on the job.

“Some of these workplaces are atrocious. They’re not doing anything,” said Rebecca Reindel, national safety and health director with the AFL-CIO. “We’re 10 months into this pandemic and we still don’t have workplace safety regulations.”

That’s about to change, according to President Joe Biden, who quickly issued an executive order to protect workers across the nation and appointed a union man to head the U.S. Department of Labor.

Keep in mind that COVID-19 workplace safety rules expected from the Biden administration and new Labor Secretary Marty Walsh may protect private sector workers in Florida, but they won’t apply to public employees.

The national Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, a branch of the Labor Department, regulates workplace safety in the private sector, but leaves regulation of public employees to the governments that employ them.

There are roughly 1.1 million public employees in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). There has been no state department of labor since former Gov. Jeb Bush abolished the last one in the early 2000s.

Rich Templin, legislative policy director with AFL-CIO Florida, said Florida developed under a motto of cheap land, cheap labor, and lax regulations. He believes workers here have always been underprotected.

“That’s Florida,” he said. “The risks from COVID are really high right now … but there’s no regulation in Florida. Florida has not mandated anything.”

As it stands now, the death toll from COVID-19 reached 425,103 nationwide on Tuesday, including 25,673 resident deaths in Florida, according to the state Department of Health and the New York Times COVID tracker.

Republican lawmakers pushing a COVID liability shield to protect employers from lawsuits couch it as a way to rebuild Florida’s businesses, but they have not simultaneously adopted workplace safety regulations to protect Florida workers.

Even new OSHA rules would not necessarily invalidate a liability shield, which enjoys support from legislative leaders, or strengthen workers’ claims against employers accused of failing to protect them from COVID at work, Templin said.

Virginia, where Democrats hold the political majority, has taken a different approach, replacing temporary, state-level protections for workers with permanent rules. Those include enhanced ventilation in workplaces, reporting of employee infections so that co-workers can quarantine or seek medical care, paid sick leave, and the uniform wearing of face masks, as infectious-disease experts have advocated since early in the pandemic.

Other Democratic-controlled states including Michigan, Oregon, and California have similar temporary measures.

Unlike administrative rules that could be months in the making, executive orders take immediate effect. One of Biden’s first orders calls upon federal employees across the country to wear face masks on federal property and exercise other COVID precautions. That will apply to about 150,000 workers in Florida, according to the Florida DEO.

While the nation awaits new OSHA regulations and greater access to COVID vaccines, Reindel, at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., said employers genuinely interested in protecting their workers should move ahead.

The most important step for employers, she said, is to accurately evaluate the needs of a workplace, since not all are the same. Key safeguards that cost little or nothing are to have employees wear face masks and maintain safe distancing and hand hygiene.

The most important engineering change is to improve ventilation so that airborne COVID virus departs the building as soon as possible. Some workplaces may determine that parts of the workforce need to wear respirators — an advanced type of face mask — while working in areas at high risk of COVID transmission.

The key problem, in Reindel’s view, is that America’s COVID response became politicized, with top worker-safety authorities in the Trump administration chiefly committed to reopening the economy ahead of the presidential election, regardless of the harm to the nation’s employed and unemployed workers.

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Labor, headed by Eugene Scalia, refused to adopt emergency temporary standards specific to COVID-19, as called for by the AFL-CIO. Under Scalia, critics say OSHA did little to investigate COVID-related reports of unsafe workplace practices, leaving worried workers with no recourse but to quit or take their chances in unsafe settings.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued voluntary, unenforceable guidelines for safety, including mask-wearing, distancing, enhanced ventilation, personal protective equipment, and contact tracing.

Although some employers followed the guidelines to keep their workplaces virus-free, others — including meat-packing plants in Minnesota and bars in Florida — did not, adding fuel to the pandemic.