The U.S. government has rushed several trillion dollars in bailouts to the banks and the biggest corporations during the COVID-19 crisis. But it has taken little or no action to establish or enforce on-the-job safety standards to protect other essential workers battling the virus and keeping society running. Angered by this inaction, nurses from National Nurses United stood outside the White House on April 21 holding pictures of their comrades who died of the virus.
The union, which represents 185,000 nurses, called it “inexcusable” that Congress has already passed three COVID-19 aid packages, and is currently debating another, without including standards for the safety of health care providers. They demanded more Personal Protective Equipment, and called upon Congress to immediately instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set mandatory workplace safety standards for those institutions treating COVID-19 patients. OSHA, the safety enforcement arm of the Labor Department, has taken no action to protect workers from the virus.
Keeping social distance, the women and men read off the names of the 50 doctors and nurses who have already died of COVID-19. Health care providers make up to 20 percent of U.S. virus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We are here because our colleagues are dying. I think that right now people think of us as heroes, but we’re feeling like martyrs,” one nurse said. Another added, “If you don’t protect us, we can’t protect our patients.”
Government silent to nurse plea for safety standards
Seven weeks ago NNU asked OSHA for temporary safety workplace standards, but OSHA didn’t bother to answer them, a spokesperson said. Further increasing the danger to medical workers, the CDC has actually pulled back on safety guidelines, claiming home-made masks and bandannas were safe for professionals in the medical setting when they are not. The union explained that safety standards must include use of N95 masks or higher for anyone treating a COVID-19 patient.
A representative of NNU read a list of demands addressed to President Donald Trump, Congress, and all other government officials, which included:
- That Congress pass a bill mandating OSHA to establish standards.
- That President Trump use the Defense Production Act to order the mass production of PPE, including N95 respirators, face shields, gowns, gloves and shoe coverings, as well as ventilators and COVID-19 testing kits.
OSHA sidesteps obligatory standards
OSHA has dragged its feet, and taken no responsibility for worker safety during the pandemic. Last week, under pressure from the outcry of many workers, the agency finally announced it would put a priority on investigating health care facility complaints of coronavirus safety procedures. But this is investigating individual complaints when it is known that unsafe conditions are widespread. It does not mean that OSHA will set obligatory safety standards, or strive to enforce them.
The agency’s COVID-19 Guidance for employers actually begins by explaining that it “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.” The CDC has issued some guidelines that can protect workers — using masks in workplaces, social distancing, and sanitizing stations — but they are suggestions. OSHA would need to make them mandatory, and the agency even has precedent for making obligatory tougher rules. During the H1N1 flu outbreak, OSHA made CDC. guidelines enforceable, requiring the use of face masks and other measures to slow transmission. But the agency is not doing this now.
This is OSHA’s response to health care workers. OSHA leaders havw said nothing about the on-the-job safety of the tens of millions of front-line workers who don’t provide medical services. These workers have been totally abandoned by the government and left on their own.
This impacts not only safety but compensation for the workers and their families. “As long as OSHA doesn’t take a position, these employers have a pass to say workers got sick elsewhere and it’s not their responsibility,” said Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents some 1.3 million laborers.
OSHA turns over safety monitoring to bosses
The only government agency mandated to protect workers on the job is turning over safety monitoring to the very bosses guilty of violations! The agency has actually called on employers to make their own investigations of safety at their workplace and report back to OSHA! This is little more than a green light for corporate abusers to continue to put profits ahead of worker safety.
Amazon ‘mass call-out’
This is a go-ahead, for example for Amazon to continue what it is doing. This international corporate giant demands such a grueling work pace for its warehouse workers that many cannot take bathroom breaks, much less stop to wash their hands. This is why Amazon warehouse workers are planning to stage a “mass call-out” this week for greater safety protections during the coronavirus outbreak. Despite company intimidation, more than 300 workers from about 50 facilities will participate, according to United for Respect, a worker-rights group.
They are calling for Amazon to close down facilities with positive cases and to provide testing and two weeks’ pay for workers during that time; guarantee health care for all Amazon workers; eliminate rate-based quotas that make hand-washing and sanitizing impossible; and no retaliation against workers who speak out.
These are the most basic of safety demands, yet these workers can count on no government backing for them, not even from the only agency tasked with protecting them on the job.
A new form of government is needed, one that protects people, not profits. Workers run the country, we should rule the country.