Millions of “essential workers” who have had to continue working will soon be joined by millions more who will be called back to jobs in reopening businesses. Many of those who go will be terrified—and rightly so, according to David Michaels, who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration. As Michaels described to Politico, “It’s not fair for them to be asked to choose between their income and their health.”
With the end of the national stay-at-home order, governors across the country are making individual, piecemeal decisions about when and how to allow closed businesses to reopen. Last week, we reported on the tack taken by OSHA and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Although they have developed a set of guidelines to make certain workplaces safer when it comes to the risk of contracting the virus, these are advisory only. OSHA has even gone to the trouble of telling employers it will come to their defense if workers protest and take them to court.
State by state, closure orders are being terminated or modified. More and more businesses are being allowed to reopen, often with minimal guidance on how that can and should be done safely. From the perspective of Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “These states that are reopening early, they do not have some plan, really, to keep people safe. They’re just kind of mostly going on hope that they’ve flattened the curve and that everyone’s going to be okay.” David Michaels told the Intercept how dangerous a system with no firm safety protections is: “Some employers are only now providing the proper [personal protective equipment, or PPE] to COVID-exposed workers, and far too many still provide no PPE or even adequate social distancing. They can get away with it because OSHA refuses to issue an emergency standard requiring employers to protect their employees from this deadly virus.”
On the other hand, choosing to stay home is a financial risk. The threat of losing one’s job is quite clear. The Intercept recently published a notice given to employees in a plant processing financial statements that clearly spelled out the price of staying away from an unsafe workplace: “If you don’t show up for work you will not be paid and after two days you will be considered to have abandoned your job.”
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Choosing health over job also means, in many states, becoming ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits. As Kersha Cartwright, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Labor, explains, “There are many reasons that an employee could potentially be eligible for unemployment. Feeling unsafe in the workplace is not one. It sounds harsh, but that’s in the guidelines.”
One voice advocating for those asked to work under these conditions comes from the labor movement. In a letter to the US Secretary of Labor, AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) President Richard Trumka said,
Workers have been left in harm’s way, paying the price with their lives and their health. Millions of private and public sector workers in health care, emergency services, corrections, transportation, food processing, retail, grocery, warehousing, mining, manufacturing, construction and other industries face exposure to COVID-19 on the job; tens of thousands have been infected and hundreds have died. Without government oversight and enforcement, too many employers are disregarding safety and health standards and their general duty obligation to protect workers against recognized hazards that threaten workers’ health and safety. Workers’ lives are being treated as expendable.
The letter included recommendations for safety standards that the AFL-CIO asked to be made enforceable. And last Friday, a coalition of 50 organizations—including Color of Change, Public Citizen, Fight for the Future, and United We Dream—added their voices when they called for “urgent expansion and improved enforcement of legal protections.” Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, amplified this in a statement, saying, “Our public health and societal well-being require that workers have the power to speak up in these moments, to call attention to employer practices that create unsafe working conditions made more dangerous by the current crisis, and to refuse to work in deadly worksites.”
In a nation where economic inequality is so pervasive and too many households have no ability to manage the loss of income, this is a devastating trap. More people need to step forward and join with those fighting so no person must choose between their income and their survival.—Martin Levine