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U.S. Workplace Safety Rules Missing In The Pandemic

Hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a Smithfield Foods hog-processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Shannon Stapleton
Hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a Smithfield Foods hog-processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.

As more businesses start to reopen and people go back to work, some companies are looking for advice on how to keep employees safe from the coronavirus.

So far, the federal government hasn't been much help.

"It's the Wild West out there," said Geoff Freeman, president of the Consumer Brands Association, which represents grocery manufacturers. "The federal government, particularly CDC and OSHA, is failing to provide the clear and specific guidance necessary to encourage relatively consistent adoption across the country."

Freeman complains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — the federal workplace safety agency — offered little direction about protective gear or what to do when a worker tests positive for COVID-19. That left essential businesses that kept operating during the pandemic to figure it out for themselves.

"Industry has provided that direction," Freeman said. "But it remains disappointing to us that we're not seeing that same level of clarity and direction across the board from government."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter this week to President Trump and state and local leaders around the country urging them to harmonize workplace safety standards so employers don't have to deal with a patchwork of different measures. At the same time, the chamber argued safety standards should be advisory and not mandatory.

"Businesses want to do this right," said Neil Bradley, the chamber's chief policy officer. "They absolutely want to figure out how they can bring their employees back safely. But a regulatory approach that is more rules-based and less flexible just won't allow them to do that."

The CDC has offered general guidelines for workplace safety — encouraging workers to stay six feet away from each other, for example, and to wash their hands frequently.

But the Trump administration, which is typically allergic to regulation, has resisted writing rules to make those recommendations enforceable.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, has introduced legislation that would require OSHA to mandate what the CDC suggests.

"You don't need politicians guessing as to what they need or businesses themselves guessing. You need the expertise of OSHA to tell them what to do to protect the workers. And it's not taking place," Scott said.

Last weekend, the CDC and OSHA did issue more detailed guidelines for meatpacking plants, which typically employ hundreds of workers in close quarters and which have proven to be a breeding ground for coronavirus infections. The guidelines echoed advice the CDC gave to Smithfield Foods after touring the company's hog-processing plant in South Dakota, where hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19.

The government recommended Smithfield space workers out, install more portable bathrooms, and structure bonuses in a way that wouldn't discourage employees from calling in sick. The CDC stressed, however, this advice came with no regulatory hammer to back it up.

"The recommendations in this memorandum are steps that Smithfield Foods may want to consider," the agency wrote in a memo. "These recommendations are discretionary and not required or mandated by CDC."

Deborah Berkowitz, who directs the worker safety program at the National Employment Law Project, says employees deserve stronger protection.

"I was at OSHA for six years," Berkowitz said. "Some companies do it right. But many companies need to know that if they don't do something right, there may be a penalty or there may be a citation. And that is the incentive that they need."

In a pandemic, she stressed, the lack of regulation has consequences beyond the workplace.

"In this situation, protecting workers is more than just protecting an individual worker," Berkowitz said. "It's protecting the public."

More than a dozen meatpacking plants were shut down after coronavirus outbreaks. But this week, under pressure from the packing companies, the president ordered plants to stay open — to avoid disrupting the nation's food supply.

"They're putting in laws to protect the employer. They're not enacting laws to protect the worker," said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 7. She represents workers at a Colorado meatpacking plant where six people died.

"These workers only signed up to process meat," Cordova said. "They didn't sign up to lose their life over this job."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.