The White House decided not to issue an emergency safety standard for COVID-19 that would apply to most workers, relying on a general rule that seemed almost certain to be in place once President Joe Biden took office.
Instead, the administration is forging ahead with a more tailored rule designed with healthcare workers in mind only. The move has drawn strong criticism from security advocates who say the president is abandoning a campaign engagement.
After his inauguration, Biden asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor, to consider developing binding regulations that employers should follow to protect workers from the virus. The emergency regulations were due to be adopted in March if officials deemed it useful.
But the administration missed that deadline as the pace of coronavirus vaccinations accelerated, putting the idea of a rule in limbo. Then, in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidelines for face coverings for vaccinees, creating potential conflicts with any OSHA rule that would require workers in general to wear masks indoors. .
OSHA has designed a rule that reflects the reality on the ground.
Secretary at Work Marty Walsh
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Congress in a hearing Wednesday that the latest emergency rule would apply to workers in healthcare facilities. Careful OSHA observers expected the regulation to have different standards for healthcare workers and workers in general, but the workforce in general will be excluded from the final rule.
Walsh said healthcare workers are most at risk and therefore should be at the center of the rule.
“OSHA has adapted a rule that reflects the reality on the ground, the success of all government vaccination efforts, as well as the latest CDC guidance on the changing nature of the pandemic,” he said.
Business groups have reportedly resisted a strict and widely enforced OSHA rule, as the requirements could increase costs for employers and lead to inspections and fines against those who fail to comply. States, including Virginia and California, had already implemented such regulations themselves, but there was no mandatory federal standard for COVID-19 safety to apply everywhere.
Progressive lawmakers, worker safety advocates and unions had made regulation a priority and stepped up pressure on the administration in recent weeks after it got stuck in limbo. Despite the encouraging vaccination campaign and the decline in the number of coronavirus cases, these groups said workers in industries such as grocery and meat packaging were still vulnerable to infection.
Some berated the administration on Wednesday for excluding most workplaces in the upcoming rule.
Gina Cummings, vice president of nonprofit Oxfam America, which has advocated for the protection of meat packers, said in a statement the move represented “a shameful failure of leadership by an elected administration on a platform representing the needs of all working people. ”
The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a network of occupational safety groups, said the new rule would be an important step forward for healthcare workers, but criticized the lack of mandatory protections for others. Jessica Martinez, co-director of the group, said the White House “missed a crucial opportunity.”
“This is a new insult in addition to the injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families,” Martinez said. “The vaccines have not reached all workers and COVID-19 is not over. “
Walsh said OSHA will update its safety guidelines for workers in industries outside of healthcare. However, such guidance does not carry the specter of enforcement and fines. The Biden campaign had criticized the Trump administration for not implementing a mandatory rule through OSHA, but relying instead on mostly voluntary guidance.
Jordan Barab, an OSHA official under Barack Obama’s administration, said on Wednesday Twitter that Walsh’s announcement was a “disappointment.” He said OSHA should apply the CDC guidelines to employers in all industries.
“Voluntary guidelines are not enough,” he said.
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