As states and municipalities relax shelter-in-place orders, the nation seems to be racing to get the economy back to something resembling the pre-pandemic era. Restaurants, malls, cinemas, day care centers and retail stores are reopening sooner than most medical professionals think is wise.
The risk is obvious to many businesses that stayed open as the coronavirus swept the country. Meat processing plants, for instance, have had among the highest rates of infection. Employees continued to show up to work at many such facilities, even as thousands of their colleagues tested positive for the virus. By one estimate, more than 27,000 workers in meatpacking have tested positive for the coronavirus, up sharply from 17,000 just last month.
Yet the federal agency meant to protect America’s workers continues to sit on the sidelines. Even as state after state reopens, and the number of infections continues to climb, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has so far refused to give employers clear rules to follow, allowing those that neglect worker safety to operate without fear of government penalty.
For months now, OSHA has relied on general guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, without making them mandatory, meaning businesses face no threat of enforcement action for noncompliance.
The courts have offered workers no relief — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia this month dismissed a lawsuit by the AFL-CIO that would have compelled OSHA to issue emergency rules for worker protection, saying the agency can determine its own standards.
The result has been millions of essential employees forced to work under hazardous conditions. Now that threat is spreading to nonessential workers, too.
OSHA’s top administrator, Loren Sweatt, explained during a congressional hearing last month that general guidelines, rather than rules, allow the agency and businesses to adapt more quickly as the scientific and public understanding of the coronavirus changes. “Regulations are very cumbersome to revise,” Sweatt said.
But even when it has received credible complaints of unsafe conditions, OSHA has failed to act. Workers at a Nebraska JBS beef processing plant alleged in April that they and their colleagues remained in close quarters during lunchtime and in the locker room despite “a number of positive cases of COVID-19.” OSHA didn’t inspect the site and issued no citations; some 300 workers contracted the virus.
OSHA has received more than 5,000 complaints related to the coronavirus since the pandemic began. It has issued only a single citation, to a Georgia nursing home for failing to report employee hospitalizations within 24 hours.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES