As we celebrate Labor Day and “essential workers” amid a viciously resurgent pandemic, we ought to match our rhetoric with some concrete protections for these workers — you know, all those warehouse employees, meatpackers, farmworkers and supermarket staff that industry groups love to thank online while doing little, if anything, for them in the real world.
We’re talking basic things like fresh N-95 masks for all workers, face shields wherever needed, adequate physical distancing, free regular testing for COVID-19 and paid sick time for every worker who needs it — all recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
The problem is that President Joe Biden has abandoned his own executive order, issued on his second day in office, to protect workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. Biden pledged to enact a new infectious disease rule to protect workers — which the Trump administration refused to do — by last March. Three months later, in June, he finally signed a narrow rule that only covers health care workers — leaving out tens of millions of workers who toil daily in dangerous conditions where COVID-19 infections have spread like wildfire.
Those industry groups that love to publicly thank their “essential workers” — including the National Grocers Association, the North American Meat Institute, the National Retail Federation, and, get this, even the American Hospital Association — also lobbied intensely to exclude these same workers from COVID-19 safety protections on the job. Now, business groups are pushing to gut and delay enforcement of these already enfeebled protections.
The stakes are as high as it gets: life and death. In meatpacking, a business deemed “essential” (Trump even ordered meat processing factories to keep running as the pandemic raged), more than 250 workers have died from COVID-19, according to the nonprofit Investigate Midwest.
As a reporter, I’ve interviewed workers who, while surrounded by COVID-19 and other hazards, had to keep working to keep food on the table. One meatpacking worker in Oklahoma told me, “In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from her plant, sick from the virus. Yet the company, she said, “kept pushing people,” moving the assembly line faster. “People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.”
With the voracious delta variant ripping across the United States, and other new COVID-19 variants emerging — due largely to ongoing resistance to vaccinations and masks — it’s incumbent on Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to enact a vigorous infectious disease standard that covers all U.S. workers.
Protecting worker safety and health is central to containing and ultimately defeating this horrific pandemic, which has killed more than 638,000 people in the United States to date. Renewed action by worker safety leaders, including Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor; Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C.; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., could help empower this vital protection.
Since March 15, when Biden’s COVID-19 worker protections were supposed to launch, more than 15,000 working-age Americans have died from the pandemic, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH).
“Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of COVID,” said Jessica E. Martinez, COSH’s co-executive director. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”
But it’s not too late for Biden to stand up to the industry lobbyists and follow through with his promise to America’s essential workers, whose health and safety is, indeed, “essential.” That would be a stronger message than any #LaborDay tweet.