How Joe Biden Can Protect Essential Workers from Coronavirus 1

The Labor Department still (still!) needs to do more to protect employees from getting Covid on the job.

Since foiling Donald Trump’s bid for a second term, Joe Biden has gone out of his way to send working-class voters the message that he, and not his predecessor, is the true champion of their interests. Shortly after he was inaugurated, Mr. Biden signed an executive order to encourage the federal government and federal contractors to pay their workers a $15 minimum hourly wage. He fired the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, an anti-union lawyer and a Trump appointee. In a video tweeted in late February, Mr. Biden paid homage to unions and warned employers that there should be “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” when workers exercise their collective bargaining rights.

Mr. Biden’s video did not explicitly refer to a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. But along with his other statements and actions, it marked a notable shift from the more tepid relationship with organized labor that has prevailed under some recent Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama. It also signaled a decisive break with the priorities of Mr. Trump, who rewarded his working-class supporters by cutting taxes for the rich and gutting worker protections.

But there is one notable change that the Biden administration has not yet made: issuing an emergency temporary standard that would require employers to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus by taking actions such as instituting mask-wearing requirements and social-distancing rules.

A year ago, union leaders and workers’ rights advocates pressed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to address the worst occupational health crisis since the agency’s founding in 1971. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. Instead, OSHA issued toothless guidelines that employers were explicitly told were voluntary and created no legal obligations.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden criticized this approach, assailing what he called Mr. Trump’s “foot-dragging.” The day after Mr. Biden was sworn into office, he signed an executive order directing OSHA to review the matter and, if warranted, to issue an emergency temporary standard by March 15. Yet more than a month later, no standard has appeared, leading some to fear that the idea has been shelved. Marty Walsh, Mr. Biden’s secretary of labor, said on MSNBC this month that the administration was looking into the standard.

One potential explanation for Mr. Biden’s own foot-dragging is that, with vaccination rates rising, the administration no longer believes action is necessary. But the threat to workers has hardly disappeared, particularly as new coronavirus variants continue to spread.

In Michigan, which has experienced a surge in Covid infections, more than half of new reported Covid outbreaks have occurred in workplaces. “Vaccinations are helping, but we are nowhere near a situation where dangerous exposures are under control,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, who was the director of OSHA under Mr. Obama. A union representing workers at a pork slaughterhouse in Oklahoma, which has had one of the largest outbreaks in the meatpacking industry, recently filed a complaint accusing the plant of not taking enough measures to protect employees. (The company has denied this.)

Another reason the Biden administration may be hedging? Politics — in particular, the desire to avoid antagonizing governors as well as business groups like the National Retail Federation, which has urged the agency to refrain from imposing “inflexible and costly burdens on employers.” This opposition is unsurprising: For decades, trade associations have opposed many new OSHA regulations, often warning that the rules will wipe out jobs and constrain business. According to Dr. Michaels, such fears have generally proved unfounded.

Although some states, including California and Virginia, have issued their own standards, employees in most places are still unprotected — a matter that ought to concern supporters of racial justice no less than advocates for workers’ rights. “The essential workers getting sick are in occupations that are disproportionately made up of Black and brown workers,” said Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project. A case in point is the meatpacking industry, where line workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color and where, as Ms. Berkowitz recently told Congress, more workers have died of Covid in the past 12 months than from all other work-related hazards in the past 15 years.

By issuing an emergency temporary standard that includes some basic requirements for Covid safety measures, the Biden administration would affirm that the health and safety of all working-class people matter.

During Mr. Trump’s presidency, the term “working class” came to be associated with people who flocked to his rallies — that is, with white men in MAGA hats. But the Black and Latino essential workers who risked their lives during the pandemic — and some of the voters of all races who catapulted Mr. Biden to victory last November — are no less a part of the working class. The Trump administration treated the lives of these workers as expendable. For moral reasons as well as practical ones, Joe Biden should make it clear that they are not.

Eyal Press (@eyalpress) is a journalist who has reported on labor issues for The Times Magazine and The New Yorker. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.”

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