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AFL-CIO Demands Additional Worker Protections During Pandemic

March 31, 2020
"In a matter of weeks, the human and economic impact has become devastating for working people and for our country."

As the global pandemic wages on, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is insisting that the United States' federal government, state and local governments, and employers take additional measures to protect workers.

The alliance, comprised of 55 national and international unions, expressed urgency with its numerous requests.

"In a matter of weeks, the human and economic impact has become devastating for working people and for our country," the federation states. "The labor movement is mobilizing and doing everything we can to protect our members and the general public, and we ask the federal government, state and local governments, and employers to do the same."

More than 12 million workers, many of whom are considered essential, fall under the AFL-CIO's representation. Among them are the American Federation of Teachers, American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, the International Association of Fire Fighters, United Food and Commercial Workers, National Nurses United,  International Union of Police Associations and the American Federation of Government Employees.

While the AFL-CIO is compiling education and information resources for its members, it also demanded a set of steps comprising of occupational health and safety; worker protections such as paid leave, paid sick days, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance; medical treatment and community mitigation; and the pandemic’s economic impact.

"We must protect our front-line workers; mitigate the public health crisis; sustain people as long as the crisis lasts, especially workers in severely affected sectors; support state and local governments; and rebuild our economy and put people back to work," the AFL-CIO states.

Workplace Measures

While OSHA has issued temporary guidance on respiratory protection, the AFL-CIO requests the agency also should implement an emergency temporary standard (ETS) targeting occupational exposure to infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

The federation details what should be included in this standard, "Employers must be required to assess workplace-specific risks, implement controls to reduce risks, develop protocols and training, and develop pandemic plans, with workers engaged in each process. The ETS should cover workers in some transportation sectors and public sector workers in states where they lack OSHA coverage in order to prevent widespread transmission. This standard should provide no less protection for novel pathogens than the standards adopted under state plans."

For employers, the AFL-CIO states that proactive measures be taken before workers become infected, especially those whom previously were exposed to toxic substances on the job and battle chronic illnesses which makes them high-risk.

"All workers should be provided the appropriate resources, training, equipment and protocols to be protected from the virus and avoid infecting other people," it declares. "Since there is no established safe exposure limit to the virus, the goal should be to eliminate exposure to the greatest extent possible."

For frontline workers who respond to, care for, or treat the health care needs of the public, any exposure or infection should be presumed to be an on-the-job injury or illness contracted on the job.

The AFL-CIO criticized current measures being taken by the Trump administration, saying: "Current guidance from the federal government—in particular for workers in the transportation and health care sectors—is inadequate and protective guidance must be developed for all at-risk workers and made public on a priority basis."

In order to manage the crisis more adequately, additional funding for worker safety and health training on infectious disease control should be made available, specifically in the areas of adequate personal protective equipment and fitting; emergency response and preparedness; and "other workplace-specific training that equips our working people with the tools we need during this crisis and for the future."

This also is the time for additional regulation, not loosening or suspending rules. The AFL-CIO targets the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stating the agency's stance on allowing healthcare workers to wear surgical masks instead of N95 respirators or greater should be reversed.

OSHA and the Mine and Safety Health Administration (MSHA) also needs to bolster its list of available inspectors which is currently at its lowest numbers ever.

Once the crisis comes to an end, the AFL-CIO recommends that additional resources should be dedicated to analyze the response at all levels of the government, aiming to improve future plans, training, procedures, capacity and resource allocation.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of our systems of worker protection, health care, and occupational health and safety, as well as the impact of many years of budget austerity and underfunding of our public health infrastructure," the AFL-CIO concluded. "The pandemic also has exposed underlying weaknesses in our economy, such as high levels of corporate debt and excessive reliance on long supply chains and production in China. The urgency of strong and decisive action must not be minimized."

AFL-CIO's entire executive statement is available on the federation's website.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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