28 Oct 2021
Thursday, October 28, 2021
Contact: Melissa Moriarty, firstname.lastname@example.org, 603-505-7135
Workers on COVID-19 Safety
Our Bosses Cut Corners and We Pay the Price
Retail, healthcare, poultry workers speak out in advance of soon-to-be released vaccine and testing standard from US OSHA
Safety advocates say Feds have full authority on workplace safety and call for comprehensive approach to reduce risk of infection
LOS ANGELES -- Speaking in advance of a highly anticipated new workplace vaccine and testing standard from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers from retail, health care and poultry processing sectors say their bosses are cutting corners on workplace safety.
“Every one of us in my plant -- every single worker -- has been infected with COVID-19,” said Marielena, a poultry worker and member of the Western North Carolina Workers Center.
Marielena spoke today at a media briefing and planning session for safety advocates convened by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). She used a pseudonym due to numerous instances of retaliation by employers against workers who speak out about safety hazards.
“There is no physical distancing,” said Marielena. “They put sanitation stations up, but they are more for show than to be used. Our supervisors pressure us to use every available minute to chase chickens and slaughter them. There is no time or support for observing safety rules.”
Happy Allen, a former employee at a PetSmart store in Tennessee and member of United for Respect, faced similar problems in the retail sector. “PetSmart told us we were ‘essential’ during the pandemic -- and then guilt tripped us into not calling out sick,” he said. “The company didn’t observe social distancing and didn’t provide PPE. We often had to provide our own face masks, gloves, and sanitizing equipment. It was clear the company valued profits over our safety.”
After leaving PetSmart, Allen joined with United for Respect to help company employees advocate for safety improvements. “I’m glad to say we were able to get PetSmart to agree to a $100 bonus to incentivize employees to get vaccinated,” says Allen. “$100 is a start, but it's not enough and there’s so much more that needs to be done.”
“Covid-19 hit our nursing homes hard,” said Anne Barden, a cook and dietary aide at Trinity Hill nursing home in Hartford, Connecticut. She is a member of SEIU District 1199 New England.
“Half of our residents got sick, and many of them died,” said Barden. “At one time half of us were sick or under quarantine. We were not given proper PPE. We were sometimes given one mask to wear for several days.”
One of Barden’s co-workers died after exposure to COVID-19.
Following complaints from workers, OSHA investigated conditions at Trinity Hill and three other facilities owned by the same company, where other workers had died. The firm was cited for safety violations, with a proposed fine of $60,000. “You can’t put a price on human life but without the fines, our boss would have had no incentive to do anything for our well being,” said Barden.
A new OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), with a requirement for workers to either get vaccinated or have a weekly COVID test, was announced by President Biden in September. The proposed standard, expected to be issued soon, will cover an estimated 80 million private sector workers at firms with more than 100 workers.
“Vaccines are safe and effective but only one part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the risks of deadly infection,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “COVID-19 is still here, still deadly and still causing severe illness and deaths in our workplaces. A nationwide standard that will increase vaccination rates is a positive step. But as the workers we heard from today showed, much more is needed.”
“National COSH is supporting workers who want to see comprehensive public health measures in their workplaces, such as improved ventilation, social distancing, employer-provided PPE, shift rotation, and paid sick leave. In addition, workers want to see these measures in place without the fear of retaliation.”
After President Biden announced that a new COVID-19 ETS covering vaccines and testing was underway, a number of state governors immediately threatened litigation and other measures to block its enforcement. Such efforts are not likely to succeed, said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, and a former senior labor policy advisor to the U.S. House Labor and Education Committee.
“U.S. law is not ambiguous on this subject,” said Barab. “We are one nation with one set of workplace safety standards -- not fifty different standards. Governors and other state officials have no authority to ignore federal laws or regulations they don’t like.”
“It’s unfortunate we’ve seen so much political posturing when workers are still facing deadly risks on a daily basis,” said Barab. “As we heard today, federal standards and enforcement can make a difference in the workplace. We should all be focused on doing more -- not less -- for the workers who have sustained us during this pandemic.”
National COSH, working with affiliate and partner organizations, provides information and resources for workers who seek to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and improve safety conditions. Fact sheets, slide shows, infographics and other resources are available at NationalCOSH.org.
**** National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace.For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, @NationalCOSH on Twitter and @NationalCOSH on Instagram.