President Biden instructed the labor protection agency on Thursday to present employers with new guidelines on protecting workers from Covid-19.
In one of ten executive orders he signed Thursday, the president called on the agency to step up enforcement of existing regulations to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace and to consider issuing a new rule requiring employers to take additional precautionary measures have to.
The other executive orders also relate to the pandemic, including directing federal agencies to issue guidelines for reopening schools and using their powers to expedite protective equipment production and expand access to testing.
Critics blamed OSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, of weak oversight under former President Donald J. Trump, particularly last year when it eased record-keeping and reporting requirements on Covid-19 cases.
Under Mr Trump, the agency also announced that it would largely refrain from inspecting workplaces outside of some high-risk industries like healthcare and emergency response. And critics have complained that the appetite to punish employers is limited. Mr Biden’s order urges the agency to tackle “the worst violations” according to a White House bulletin.
Union officials and labor groups have long asked the agency to enact a rule known as the Temporary Emergency Standard that sets out steps employers must take to protect workers from the coronavirus. The agency refused to do so under Mr Trump, but Mr Biden supported the approach during the campaign.
“We have been talking about a national standardized strategy for working men and women in this country to function under this cloud of pandemic,” said Rory Gamble, president of the United Automobile Workers union, after meeting Mr. Biden in mid-November. “He stated that he would do whatever was necessary.”
OSHA’s oversight of the meat packaging industry under Mr. Trump has been scrutinized by working groups and academics. A study published this fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked between 236,000 and 310,000 Covid-19 cases to animal processing plants by the end of July, or between 6 and 8 percent of the national total at that time.
That number is roughly 50 times the 0.15 percent of the US population who work in meat packers. This suggests that the industry played an outsized role in spreading the disease.
The study found that a majority of the Covid-19 cases related to meat packaging plants likely originated from the plants and then spread to surrounding communities.
The Biden Administration
Jan. 21, 2021, 6:07 p.m. ET
Despite the issues identified in the study, the Trump administration has not included meat packers in the category of jobs that OSHA should regularly inspect. Only a small portion of the roughly $ 4 million coronavirus-related penalties proposed by the Trump agency was against the industry. The fines for any particular facility were generally less than $ 30,000.
Mr Trump’s Department of Labor said it had set the maximum penalties allowed by the law. However, former OSHA officials said the agency can impose higher fines by citing multiple infraction facilities that could increase proposed fines to over $ 100,000.
Even when inspecting meat packers and proposing fines, OSHA rarely asked these employers to place workers within two meters of their own, as it claims.
During a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania plant whose workers complained last year that they were in imminent danger because of the risk of infection, OSHA wrote in a letter Jan. 12 that it was okay to keep your distance at the plant, though some workers were less than six feet apart. Separately, union officials at two other plants where OSHA issued quotes said that workers continued to stand close together after the quotes.
Debbie Berkowitz, a senior OSHA official under the Obama administration who now works for the National Employment Law Project, said she expects the Biden administration to put out a rule according to which meat packing plants workers workers must place them at a distance of one meter from each other and prescribe other safety measures B. Providing good quality masks and improving ventilation and hygiene in their facilities.
“OSHA was paused under Trump,” said Ms. Berkowitz. “This is a signal that they will play an important role in containing the spread of Covid-19,” she added, alluding to Mr. Biden’s Executive Order.
The Biden administration is likely to revisit a variety of labor and employment issues from the Trump era, including one rule that would make it difficult for franchise and contractor employees to reclaim wages improperly withheld from them and another Rule that would likely be classifying Uber drivers and other gig workers as contractors rather than employees.
On Wednesday, the new administration fired the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a Senate-approved official who has wide scope for labor law violations. Official Peter B. Robb was appointed by Mr. Trump and has often clashed with unions.