Pres. Joe Biden has signed an executive order expanding protections designed to help keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Executive Order Calls for Guidance from OSHA
An executive order is a means by which a president issues directives to manage operations of the federal government. The “Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety” was signed on Jan. 21, 2021. In it, Pres. Biden asserts that “It is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19.”
To achieve this end, he calls upon the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to release clear guidance for employers to prevent workers from being exposed to the coronavirus. Under the terms of the order, OSHA must step up enforcement of existing rules to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The agency may also explore new rules that would require employers to take further precautions to protect workers.
OSHA’s guidance needs to be science-based, including with regards to:
- Wearing masks;
- Partnering with state and local governments to protect public employees;
- Enforcing employee health and safety requirements; and
- Pushing for additional resources to help employers keep workers safe.
The executive order directs government agencies to address COVID-19 protections both for workers who are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act and for those who are not always protected by OSHA standards, such as the self-employed.
Workers Covered Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act
Under the order, OSHA needs to review current enforcement efforts for workers protected by the Act and determine if improvements can be made. The agency must then issue its revised guidance by Feb. 4.
OSHA also has to consider whether any “emergency temporary standards” may be necessary. These are short-term rules that OSHA can issue without Congressional authorization. A temporary standard may stay in effect for six months, during which time OSHA needs to develop a “permanent” standard.
Unions and labor advocacy groups have long pleaded with OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard laying out steps that employers must take to protect their workers from COVID-19. However, the agency declined to do so during the Trump administration. Biden’s executive order requires OSHA to issue any coronavirus-related emergency temporary standards by March 15.
The order further directs OSHA to focus its enforcement efforts on “the worst violators,” including those who retaliate against workers who speak out. The agency must also conduct a multilingual outreach campaign to inform workers and their representatives of their rights under the law.
Other Categories of Workers
Additionally, OSHA has been ordered to coordinate with states that already have occupational safety and health plans in place to ensure that covered public sector workers are protected from COVID-19. For states without such plans, OSHA must consult with state and local government agencies to increase protections for public sector workers.
OSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Departments of Labor, Transportation, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Energy have also been directed to explore mechanisms to protect other categories workers who are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Stark Contrast with Trump Administration
The contrast between the vision for OSHA laid out in Biden’s executive order and the agency’s actions under Trump could not be starker.
In addition to refusing to implement an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 during Trump’s tenure, OSHA announced that it would mostly refrain from inspecting workplaces outside of a few high-risk industries, such as healthcare and emergency response. This policy meant that the agency largely ignored employment sectors that were huge flashpoints in the spread of the coronavirus, such as the meatpacking industry.
Critics also noted that OSHA had limited interest in fining employers for infractions under Trump, further removing their incentive to take the steps necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19.
Key Appointees More Labor Friendly
The difference between the attitudes of the two administrations towards labor protections is also apparent from Pres. Biden’s nominees to head the Department of Labor and OSHA.
Pres. Biden’s candidate for Secretary of Labor is Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a longtime labor advocate and former president of Laborers’ Union Local 223. He also served as secretary-treasurer and general agent of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council and as head of the Boston Building Trades.
Walsh would replace the previous Secretary of Labor, employment attorney Eugene Scalia, whom unions frequently criticized for being too pro-employer.
Pres. Biden has also nominated James Frederick, a workplace safety advocate, to head OSHA. Frederick spent 25 years in the United Steelworkers’ Health, Safety, and Environment department.
Throughout Trump’s entire time in office, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to confirm an OSHA administrator. This put the regulatory agency under the control of an acting administrator who did not have to undergo the scrutiny involved in the confirmation process.
Fighting for Workers During the Pandemic
GWC Injury Lawyers LLC welcomes the new administration’s efforts to help keep workers safe during this terrible pandemic. This has been a challenging time for all of us, but especially for those who are risking their lives every day in order to keep America moving forward.
This type of commitment to the hardworking men and women of our country resonates so strongly with us because it has been at the core of what we do for more than four decades. With over $2 billion recovered in verdicts and settlements on behalf of our injured clients, GWC is one of the premier Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firms in Illinois. Our Chicago workers’ compensation lawyers have the experience, the determination, the resources, and the reputation of success necessary to get you and your family the justice you deserve.
If you have been hurt on the job, whether from exposure to COVID-19 or in some other way, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our dedicated injury attorneys. You can call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.