Biden administration will limit mandatory Covid workplace safety rules to health care settings


June 9, 2021 2:02 pm

The Labor Department will limit long-awaited emergency Covid-19 workplace safety rules to the health care sector, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said Wednesday, a decision that disappointed unions pushing for more expansive rules but that will likely be a relief to businesses worried about new costs.

The rules, which have been under White House review since late April and are set to be released Thursday, were expected by both unions and businesses to apply broadly to all workplaces and require workers to wear masks on the job.

But the administration has decided it will instead update its optional guidance for general industry and has “tailored” the mandatory safety requirements to apply only to health care settings, Walsh said.

“OSHA has tailored a rule that focuses on health care, that science tells us that health care workers, particularly those who have come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19 are most at risk,” he said during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Wednesday. “We also expect to release some updated guidance for general industry which also reflects the CDC’s latest guidance and tells employers how to protect workers who have not yet been vaccinated.”

The change in direction from the administration on the workplace safety requirements is a letdown for unions and Democrats who argue precautions like masking and social distancing are necessary to protect unvaccinated workers in all workplaces, who may not be getting the shot for a variety of reasons.

“We’re still hearing from many food workers that their jobs are not safe. . . We’re still seeing big percentages of essential worker populations for various reasons not able to access the vaccination that we know is so critical,” said Sonia Singh co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of organizations that advocate for higher wages and better working conditions in that industry.

“So vaccination is important, but we still need strong emergency standards for all workers,” she added.

Advocates are also worried that workers will be left exposed to Covid-19 in high-risk industries like meat processing and farming, jobs typically filled by minority and immigrant workers who are seeing low rates of vaccination.

“We know that workers in many industries outside of health care faced elevated risks of COVID, especially in low wage industries like meat processing that is [made up of] disproportionately Black and brown workers,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of safety and health at The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, “and we need to make sure these workers are still protected with mitigation measures such as ventilation and filtration to control airborne exposures, masks and social distancing — and OSHA must enforce these.”

The National Nurses United union said that while it applauds the administration’s move to issue mandatory Covid-19 safety rules for healthcare workers, it will be closely reviewing the standard to see if it requires respiratory protections “to prevent workers from becoming infected through aerosol transmission of the virus.”

NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez also said the union supports “stronger workplace pandemic safety measures for all workers, all patients, and all communities.”

President Joe Biden directed the Labor Department to decide by March whether mandatory workplace safety rules that required businesses to take steps to protect their workers from Covid-19 were necessary. After weeks of delay, the administration sent the emergency rules to the White House for review at the end of April.

Unions and other advocates grew concerned about how strong the safety rules would be following the Centers for Disease Control’s surprise update to its guidance in May that cleared fully vaccinated people to remove masks in most settings.

But business groups and conservatives argue that issuing stringent safety requirements this late into the pandemic would create confusion and undermine the economic recovery just as businesses are trying to get back to normalcy.

Ed Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development at National Retail Federation, said that while he needs to review the final text once the rule is published, “the decision to address this issue in an industry-specific way is consistent with sound science and CDC guidelines.”