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How Business Weakened COVID Workplace Protections

The Biden administration intended to release far-reaching safety rules designed to protect workers from COVID — until big business came calling and demanded the rules be drastically scaled back.

World Health Organization recommends that even vaccinated individuals wear masks and observe other precautions to halt the spread of the Delta variant. (Jason Whitman / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A recently uncovered draft of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)’s COVID-19-related worker protection standards reveals that the Biden administration originally planned to issue a much broader version of the long-awaited rules than the final standards released by the agency last month. The changes came after intense lobbying efforts by major business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce.

On June 10, OSHA released the emergency temporary standard (ETS) for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic that President Joe Biden had been calling for since he first took office. Labor unions had had high hopes for broad protections: unlike guidances typically issued by OSHA, ETS requirements are legally enforceable. However, the final rules were limited to only cover health care workers.

Coupled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifting its masking guidelines for vaccinated Americans, the standards left American workers largely at the mercy of their employers.

As a July 2020 report from the Center for Progressive Reform explained, “Without an infectious diseases standard, [OSHA] is forced to rely on the general duty clause — a power it rarely uses — to cite employers for exposing workers to coronavirus.” The report noted that the agency had ignored thousands of coronavirus-related complaints from workers and their representatives.

Now, a draft of OSHA’s standards obtained by Bloomberg News sheds light on how business groups whittled down the rules behind the scenes.

On the campaign trail, Biden lambasted President Donald Trump for failing to have OSHA implement ETS for workplaces. At an April 2020 virtual town hall, Biden called such standards “the first, most important thing we should be doing.”

And yet, after Biden took office, the ETS did not manifest. Biden issued an executive order the day after he was inaugurated directing the agency to consider the need for a standard and to prepare one if needed by March 15. Nevertheless, the weeks dragged on, turning to months, and still OSHA did not release its final rules, which were held up in review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

At the time, Roll Call noted that the US Chamber, the nation’s foremost business lobbying organization, and with other industry groups were regularly meeting with OIRA.

“Business lobbying groups meeting with OIRA include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association, National Association of Home Builders, and the North American Meat Institute,” the investigation noted. “OIRA also has meetings with several unions, including the AFL-CIO, the North America’s Building Trades Unions, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and National Nurses United.”

The report noted that the meetings were responsible for the delayed release of the OSHA rules.

In the end, it appears that business lobbying prevailed over the union concerns. The narrow scope of the final OSHA standards have already sparked lawsuits by labor organizations seeking greater worker protections.

It appears, however, that labor’s demands on the rules were closer in line with what OSHA originally intended. The draft standards reveal that the agency initially intended to cover all workplaces out of concern for the “grave danger” posed by COVID.

“OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV-2 presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States,” the draft reads. “This finding of grave danger is based on the science of how the virus spreads as well as the adverse health effects suffered by those diagnosed with COVID-19.”

All told, more than six hundred thousand Americans have died from COVID so far. Although widespread vaccination efforts have seen the national infection rate plummet, the Delta variant, a new, more transmissible form of the coronavirus, has been spreading rapidly across the country and globe. Officials from the World Health Organization are currently recommending that even vaccinated individuals wear masks and observe other precautions to halt the spread of the variant.

Nevertheless, Biden’s CDC has continued to maintain that masks are unnecessary for vaccinated Americans, even in indoor environments staffed by workers who aren’t covered by OSHA’s COVID-19 worker protection standards. CDC director Rochelle Walensky told NBC last week: “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.”