Court Order Okays OSHA Inaction on COVID-19

Katie Tracy
Brian Gumm

June 11, 2020

In a June 11 order, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an AFL-CIO writ of mandamus asking the court to compel the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to do more to protect workers from infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. The order continues the dangerous status quo of workers laboring with no enforceable protections from the highly contagious and deadly virus.

On March 6, the AFL-CIO petitioned OSHA to develop an emergency temporary standard to address the significant hazards of COVID-19 infection in the workplace, followed by a permanent standard to continue safeguarding workers from infectious diseases. From health care, to meatpacking plants, to warehouses, and a variety of other workplaces, employers have not done nearly enough to protect workers from the pandemic. This has resulted in infections, deaths, and enormous economic damage. Despite the grave dangers COVID-19 poses to workers, their families, and their communities, OSHA denied the union's request. The AFL-CIO appealed to the D.C. Circuit.

In turning down the union's motion, the court noted that OSHA has wide discretion on whether or not to issue an emergency temporary standard, but if ever there was a unique circumstance that required the agency to issue such a rule, a deadly pandemic is certainly one. And it's not as if agency experts hadn't contemplated the idea before; they had been developing a rule on infectious diseases during the Obama administration. All that changed when President Trump took office and the Department of Labor shelved the rule.

OSHA's hands-off approach to COVID-19, one that relies on guidance and suggestions rather than strong, enforceable standards, has been disastrous for workers. Though just one tool that a proactive, worker-oriented OSHA should deploy in its fight against COVID-19, an emergency temporary standard to better safeguard workers is an essential one. Later this month, CPR Member Scholars Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Michael C. Duff will go into more detail on this and a number of other policy needs and recommendations in a new report. Stay tuned.

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