The Pandemic Isn’t Over, but the New Administration Is Acting Like It Is
On Donald Trump’s watch workers were callously denied enforceable workplace safety measures during the Covid pandemic. Now frontline workers charge President Joe Biden is failing to protect American workers toiling during the continuing pandemic.
“They have certainly broken a promise,” Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance said. “It was very clear, that promise for the ETS (Emergency Temporary Standard) was for all workers.”
That, of course, was not what frontline workers ultimately got when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its proposed Emergency Temporary Standard on June 10, three months after it was expected.
The new rules require some facilities, but not all, to conduct hazard assessments and make written plans to mitigate the spread of the virus as well provide employees with personal protection equipment, social distancing and paid time-off to get vaccinated or recover from illness.
The proposed emergency standard only applies to healthcare workers and their bosses. Everyone else — including those in grocery stores, retail outlets and food processing and manufacturing industries — will have to make do with a loose set of unenforceable
“The Biden administration has missed a crucial opportunity to protect all workers,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “This is a new insult on top of the injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families. Vaccines have not reached all workers and Covid-19 is not over.”
Big Promis, Small Delivery
Biden made a splash on the first day of his administration by directing the OSHA on worker safety. But that order merely suggested that OSHA consider issuing an emergency temporary standard on Covid.
New rules aimed at compelling employers to take concrete steps to protect workers from infection were expected back on March 15, but didn’t materialize until June, suggesting a lack of urgency by Biden appointees.
The likelihood that frontline workers would finally win the kinds of enforceable workplace protections they had sought since the pandemic began in early 2020 under Trump was made even more remote when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) decided on May 13 to relax mandates for fully vaccinated people.
It changed its guidance despite the troubling fact that only 140 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. That’s less than 43% of the population. People who have been vaccinated may still spread the virus.
On May 17, the CDC said that fully vaccinated people who show no symptoms do not need to bother being tested — even after exposure to an infected person. said the move reflected “a shift in the nation’s pandemic strategy, as the country moves from testing and tracing to vaccinations as the main mechanism to control the virus.”
Profits Over Pandemic Safety
Labor critics, however, maintain that vaccination alone won’t get us out of the woods. They point to large groups of vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated—infants, children under 12, the immuno-compromised and the medically fragile.
“The science is clear,” said Jane Thomason, the lead industrial hygienist for National Nurses United (NNU). “Given what we know and what is still unknown, we must take the safety-first route to protect public health by maintaining multiple measures of infection control, including masking, while at the same time working harder to increase vaccination rates.
“We still need to wear masks, avoid large crowds and gatherings, keep physically distant and get tested and isolate after exposure, even if we are vaccinated.”
NNU Co-President Jean Ross said the CDC’s May 13 decision to rollback mask mandates for the fully vaccinated was neither based on science or in the interest of public health.
“We understand everyone’s desire to get back to normal — we nurses would like nothing better. But science says now is not the time,” Ross said.
Nearly a third of the population remains despite a big push to get every eligible American vaccinated. At the same time, a particularly contagious variant of the virus first identified in India has experts worrying about new . Existing vaccines may not fully protect against this variant and others likely to follow as the virus continues to mutate and spread around the globe.
Who Refuses Vaccination
One in five Republicans say they will not get vaccinated, the , compared with one in 25 Democrats and one in eight Independents.
The various vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing Covid from the main virus strains identified before those vaccines were developed. However, the small numbers of vaccinated who do become infected predominantly suffer mild to moderate symptoms.
The people who had received at least one dose of vaccine died through May 24 but noted those deaths may be unrelated to the coronavirus. Those deaths represent just 0.0017% of those getting at least one dose, the CDC reported.
But the risk of infection, lingering medical problems known as “long Covid” and even the small risk of death all auger for an emergency standard, not a rush back to work without masks, labor leaders contacted agreed.
“I don’t want to speculate about the CDC’s motivation,” Thomason, added. “However, throughout the pandemic, we have seen immense pressure to reopen and resume profit-making activities.”
Public schoolteachers nationwide who have raised safety concerns and resisted repeated attempts to herd them back into the classroom for in-person learning have been roundly criticized.
“We started getting vilified when we started speaking out, comparing us to nurses,” Michael Hull, a former Texas schoolteacher, said. “This was all about a drive for profits.”
Employers, Hull said, “wanted us back and needed a place for workers to drop off their kids. It doesn’t make sense when you look at how other countries shut down [during the pandemic].”
The Biden administration’s push to get workers back prompted an ebullient New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to proclaim, “Let’s get back to life. If you are vaccinated, you are safe. No masks. No social distancing.”
Thomason, the National Nurses United’s lead industrial hygienist, doesn’t share Cuomo’s giddiness. “Scientists warn us that relaxing guidance while only a portion of the population has been vaccinated may create selective evolutionary pressure that may favor the emergence of variants able to infect people who have been vaccinated,” Thomason said.
“While the CDC may have intended the May 13 guidance update as an incentive to increase vaccinations, the truth is that depending upon faulty science won’t increase vaccination rates. Extensive public education and making vaccines truly accessible for working people and underserved communities will,” she said.
CDC critics warn that its new guidelines regarding masks threaten communities of color the most. “The infected can easily transmit the virus through the air — this guidance seems to ignore this fact,” NNU Co-Chair Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said.
Business Victorious Over Workers
Singh calls the limited Emergency Temporary Standard a big victory for powerful business lobbyists who’ve fought “tooth and nail” to block enforceable workplace safety protections for American workers every step of the way.
“Corporate interests are being put over workers’ lives,” she said.
The nurse’s union applauds the new protections for its members but argues the regulations don’t go far enough, and that all workers need enforceable safeguards on the job.
“All workers, everyone, deserve to be safe — on the job, in their homes, and in their communities,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said after the new rules were announced.
Just prior to the new standards, the nurse’s union cited statistics showing 30,000 new Covid cases still being recorded daily, with some 600 people dying each day, That’s a sharp drop from the butcher’s bill recorded last year, but still so high that at the current rate 219,000 more people will die in the next 12 months.
Trump Refused To Protect Workers
The Covid Emergency Temporary Standard campaign to protect American workers goes back to Trump’s reign of idiocy. His team worked diligently to the already anemic agency. Last year the AFL-CIO tried to force the to adopt an emergency standard. That effort failed, one of many signs of how Trump & Co. sided with bosses, not workers.
Deborah Burger, co-president of the nurses’ union, worries that climate change is teeing up even more deadly pandemics in the future, leaving essential workers in the crosshairs yet again.
“We want legal, enforceable rules (to protect workers),” Burger told me. “Our employers have used a range of excuses not to supply us with the protections we need, stating that they’re following CDC guidelines. During this entire last year, we have never had an adequate supply of personal protection equipment. Nurses have been lauded as heroes — but you don’t treat heroes the way our employers treated us.”
A week before the CDC’s decision to relax mask mandates for those fully vaccinated, the nurses’ union joined with colleagues throughout the country in memorializing the more than in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurses union members set out 403 white nurses’ shoes two blocks from the White House on May 12 to honor members lost to the still mysterious novel coronavirus. They hoped this would spur the adoption of emergency standards.
Pascaline Muhindura, a registered nurse at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, a , said nurses are still short of N95 masks. She also told me that staff uses surgical tape to secure makeshift negative pressure rooms intended to vent air contaminated with aerosol particles known to carry the virus.
“They still allow nurses to go into [treatment] rooms with surgical masks because OSHA doesn’t have a standard on aerosol particles,” Muhindura told me.
According to Peter Dooley, National COSH’s senior health and safety project consultant, the CDC’s decision to relax mask mandates for fully vaccinated people increased the need for a Covid emergency temporary standard.
“The CDC actions of relaxing the masking requirement for vaccinated people has really made protection from Covid a lot more confusing and a lot harder for everyone,” Dooley said. “The implications on workplace safety and health were not thought through enough — and resulted in even more need for uniform protections to be put in every workplace.”
Imagine, Dooley asks, the predicament a barista is now in due to the CDC’s new mask mandate guidelines.
“Up until a couple of weeks ago, the policy was any customer who came in had to have face coverings and social distancing — then, all of a sudden, the CDC comes out with this policy if you’re vaccinated it wouldn’t be necessary to wear a mask,” he says.
“Who the hell knows who’s vaccinated and who’s not? Are you, as a worker, going to be asking people?” Dooley asked. “It increases the risk of violent situations and disputes.”
Despite the new ETS failure to cover all frontline workers, Dooley insists, “Workers & advocates will insist and win protections.”
This week, workers up and down the food supply chain plan vigils outside OSHA offices in cities from coast to coast — including Boston, Chicago, Trenton, New York City, Syracuse and in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Featured image: Washington, D.C.-area nurses urge the CDC to revise its latest Covid guidance. Empty shoes represent nurses who have died in the pandemic.