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Workers Excluded From New COVID Protections Call on Biden to Make it Right

“We know that healthcare workers have organized and now have protections that they need. Other workers have been organizing throughout this entire pandemic as well and it’s time that their voices were heard.” — Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance

New York, NY – Frontline workers hoping that President Joe Biden would provide them with the enforceable workplace safety measures callously denied them under Donald Trump’s watch, are charging the new administration with breaking its promise to American workers toiling on the front lines of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have certainly broken a promise,” Sonia Singh, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance recently told me. “It was very clear that the 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], finally issued a new COVID Emergency Temporary Standard [ETS] on June 10 — roughly three months after it was expected.

The new rules requiring non-exempt facilities to conduct hazard assessments and formulate written plans to mitigate COVID’s spread, as well provide employees with Personal Protection Equipment [PPE], social distancing and paid time off to get vaccinated or recover from illness — only applies to healthcare workers and their bosses. 

Everyone else — including those in grocery stores, retail outlets and food precessing and manufacturing industries — will have to make due with a loose set of unenforceable guidelines and recommendations. 

“The Biden Administration has missed a crucial opportunity to protect all workers,” National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [COSH] Co-executive Director Jessica Martinez said in response. “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.”

Last week, workers up and down the food supply chain gathered outside OSHA offices in Boston, Chicago, Trenton, Syracuse, the California Bay Area and New York City — to urge the Biden administration to issue an ETS that actually protects all workers across the United Stares. 

“Because of the organizing of nurses and the amazing work that they’ve done across the country, they’ve been included in the Emergency Temporary Standard, which all of us applaud,” NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer said outside OSHA’s Varick Street offices on June 15. “But, we think this should be the standard for workers all over the country. Workers are getting sick, workers are continuing to die from COVID.” 

Tens of thousands of workers in the agricultural and meatpacking industries alone have been infected — hundreds of them have died. 

“We’re asking the Biden administration to take these worker deaths seriously — to take these workers’ infections seriously — and to understand that just because we have a vaccine does not mean that workers are not going to be infected with COVID,” Obernauer added. 

Biden made a splash on Day One of his new administration by issuing an Executive Order directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (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 never materialized. The June 15, vigils marked three months to the day that those protections were supposed to be introduced. 

“We know that in that time, 15,000 working age adults lost their lives due to COVID,” Singh told me last week. “Those are preventable deaths. We do not want to be here three months later mourning another 15,000 people — workers who had families, workers who had children, who went home to people who loved them. We’re here today, honoring those losses and saying we cannot have one more loss that can be prevented with strong, enforceable standards for all workers in this country. We know that healthcare workers have organized and now have protections that they need. Other workers have been organizing throughout this entire pandemic as well and it’s time that their voices were heard.”

A Step Backward

The likelihood celebrated frontline workers would finally win the the kinds of enforceable workplace protections they’ve sought since the COVID crisis broke out 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 had been fully vaccinated. That’s less than 43 percent of the population.

National Nurses United [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 at a press conference.

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. Becker’s Hospital Review 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.”

However, labor advocates — highlighting large groups of vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated, including infants, children under 12, the immunocompromised and the medically fragile — have long maintained that vaccination alone won’t get us out of the woods.

New York City laundry workers are among the majority of vulnerable workers left out of the newly issued Emergency Temporary Standard.

“The science is clear,” Jane Thomason, NNUs lead industrial hygienist told me. “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.” 

Nearly a third of the population remains reticent about vaccination 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 outbreaks this fall. 

One in five Republicans say they will not get vaccinated, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported, compared to one in 25 Democrats and one in eight Independents.

The various Covid vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing the disease. However, the vaccinated who then become infected predominantly suffer mild to moderate symptoms, not lethal autoimmune responses. 

The CDC said 4,863 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 Temporary Standard that truly encompasses all workers, not a rush back to work without masks, the labor leaders I spoke to all agreed.

“The science behind this is essentially that now that we have a vaccine workers are all protected,” Obernauer told me last week. “But most companies are not requiring all their workers to be vaccinated. There’re also questions around whether that would be legal to do, in all workplaces. And so, you have mixed vaccination statuses in all workplaces. That varies, obviously, based on the state, based on the city. But, all in all, you’re not having 100 percent vaccinated workforces. As long as you have people coming into contact with each other who are not vaccinated, as long as you don’t have masks mandates anymore, you really need to make sure you’re protecting workers. And that’s really what we’re calling on the Biden administration to do.”

Get Back to Work No Matter What

Establishment figures, whether under Trump or Biden, have been pushing workers to return to their jobs — no matter what the cost to their safety and the safety of their families — throughout the entire pandemic. 

“I don’t want to speculate about the CDC’s motivation,” Thomason told me. “However, throughout the pandemic we have seen immense pressure to reopen and resume profit-making activities.”

Public school teachers nationwide who have raised safety concerns and resisted repeated attempts to herd them back into the classroom for in-person learning have been roundly vilified throughout the pandemic.

“We started getting vilified when we started speaking out comparing us to nurses,” Michael Hull, a former Texas schoolteacher, told me. “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 to the workplace prompted an ebullient Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to proclaim, “Let’s get back to life. If you are vaccinated, you are safe. No masks. No social distancing.”

Thomason didn’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,” she told me. 

“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,” Thomason 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.

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. 

Even the nurse’s union, in applauding the new ETS that seeks to protect its members, argues that the new 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, RN said after the the ETS was announced. 

Just prior to the new ETS, 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.

Nurses Memorial

The Covid Emergency Temporary Standard campaign to protect American workers goes back to Trump’s reign of idiocy. His team worked diligently to neuter the already anemic agency. Last year the AFL-CIO tried to force the Trump administration to adopt an emergency standard. That effort failed, one of many signs of how Trump & Co. sided with bosses, not workers.

NNU Co-President Deborah Burger worries that climate change is teeing up even more deadly pandemics on the horizon, leaving essential workers in the crosshairs yet again. 

“We want legal, enforceable rules (to protect workers),” Burger told me ahead of the new ETS. “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 3,600 healthcare workers who died 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 for-profit hospital in the HCA chain, said nurses are still short on N95 masks. She also told me that staff use 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 for all workers.  

“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.”

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