As Coronavirus Surges, Who's Protecting American Workers?

Except for Virginia, hardly anyone.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
to come
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Virginia made headlines recently when it became the first state to begin to create coronavirus safety rules for the workplace.

Although the virus has already caused more than 126,000 deaths and infected 2.5 million people in the U.S. (both numbers by far the highest of any nation), political leadership has been largely focused on a swift reopening of the economy with relatively little thought to the human consequences of what that entails. 

Now that the virus is in the midst of a well-documented nationwide surge following that reopening, it's reasonable to give serious consideration to what protective measures are in place for those trying to keep the economy moving.

While high-profile industries like meatpacking have received much of the attention for their stratospheric infection rates, the reality is workplace health concerns are widespread. One survey discussed in this space last month (How Do Americans Feel About Returning to Work?) showed that 85% of respondents felt "worried and anxious" about contracting the virus at work.

Mandates on social distancing, disinfection and exposures

Against this backdrop of entirely realistic anxiety, the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), reluctant to place added restrictions on business in extremely difficult times, has issued only "one citation in response to more than 4,000 coronavirus-related complaints," according to reporting in The Hill.  While individual companies may still choose to do the right things in terms of coronavirus safety, there's virtually no pressure on them to have to. Which is why Virginia found it necessary to step into this workplace-safety void.  

Virginia's rules are still being drafted, but they will likely include, according to Marketplace, "mandates around social distancing, disinfection, and notification to workers about likely exposures — all punishable by fines if businesses don't comply."  

Predictably, many businesses have opposed these rules, noted The Hill, arguing they would "add a greater burden to their budgets during an already challenging time." 

Challenging to be sure. But it's every bit as challenging, though in a different way, for the people who are actually doing the work as for those attempting to lead the economic recovery. The unfortunate reality is President Trump has pushed hard to reopen the economy without following a clear, metric-driven strategy of how that should be done and what it entails. One of the many ignored elements is the small matter of workplace safety, which of course is not so small for the millions of Americans who happen to be out there working. 

Business before health

In a Senate hearing yesterday, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci testified that the pandemic's current U.S. course was "very disturbing" and noted that he "would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 [cases] a day if this does not turn around."

Until it does turn around, or until meaningful, enforceable, safety rules are established, American workers will remain highly vulnerable.

In stark contrast to this scattershot business-before-health approach, New Zealand has earned global acclaim for a tough disciplined lockdown that immediately shut the country down, banned tourism, and has quickly come close to eliminating the virus with only 22 deaths. 

"Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success," New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stated. "It is failure."