Submitted via www.regulations.gov
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20210
Re: COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard (OSHA-2021-0007)
Dear Assistant Secretary Parker,
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America, proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers, and assesses policies with respect to how well they further those goals. EPI submits these comments to urge the agency to adopt an OSHA COVID-19 Standard. COVID-19 is the greatest occupational health crisis that our nation has faced since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and its continued impacts have come with great personal and economic costs to workers everywhere. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive standard that would protect workers from the threats of COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, workplace exposures have been a major driver of the pandemic. From grocery workers to farm workers, to bus drivers to teachers, to restaurant workers, to construction workers, to poultry workers, to warehouse workers, and more, COVID-19 workplace outbreaks have been a constant threat to workers in every industry. As we approach the third year of this pandemic, workers are still facing a grave and significant risk to COVID-19. Front-line workers–many of whom are women or workers of color–continue to risk their and their families’ lives in order to make a living and provide essential services to the public.
Protecting workers is not just a legal and moral imperative. It’s an economic and human rights imperative. When we fail to protect workers, it affects the health and economic well-being of all of our families and communities. To assure the economy remains open and vibrant, we must mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. In all, implementing a comprehensive standard is good public policy: it will reduce deaths and hospitalizations, and it will also increase economic growth and reduce the main inflationary pressures facing the U.S. economy.
It is well understood that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color. These disparities are rooted in historic and ongoing social and economic injustices including disparate access to health care, insufficient wages, and the practice of workplace segregation. Another contributing factor is workers’ ability–or inability–to work safely from home, which differs enormously by race and ethnicity, with Black and Hispanic workers less likely to be able to telework. As a result, Black, Latinx, and other workers of color are more likely to be in front-line jobs, and these communities have disproportional rates of illness and death related to COVID-19. The Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers in meatpacking and poultry plants, for example, were disproportionally impacted by the devastating spread of COVID-19 at their workplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 87% of all infections in the meat industry occurred among racial and ethnic minorities in the industry.
Because OSHA failed to issue any COVID-19 standards outside of health care, millions of workers got sick at work, many were hospitalized, and many more never recovered fully and are now reeling with the effects of long-haul COVID-19. Untold thousands died, and then the disease spread back into their communities. The U.S. still lacks a comprehensive system to track workplace fatalities and exposures, and as such we do not know the true toll of the pandemic. Evidence suggests that many more COVID-19 related deaths have gone uncounted. However, we do know, for example, that more workers have died from COVID-19 in meatpacking and poultry plants to date during the pandemic than died from all causes in the industry in the past 15 years.
Additionally, in the absence of enforceable workplace safety standards, workers have risked their jobs to take direct action to motivate employers to prioritize their health and safety. Voluntary employer guidance has been ineffective, and employers have even rolled back safety measures despite the Omicron variant surge. Unfortunately, many workers who fought to improve their workplace conditions faced harsh discipline or job loss. A comprehensive and enforceable standard would guarantee greater compliance among employers and would ensure that workers do not unnecessarily risk their lives or jobs.
A comprehensive COVID-19 worker protection standard to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus would have large economic effects as well, even beyond the considerable economic value of deaths and hospitalizations averted. Overall economic growth over the past year has been largely driven by the fall and rise of COVID-19 cases. In the first six months of this year, as case growth fell sharply, gross domestic product (GDP) rose at a 6.5% annualized rate—an extraordinarily fast pace of growth. However, in the third quarter, as the Delta variant surged in the United States in August and September, GDP growth decelerated to just 2.1%.
Rises in COVID cases also impact job growth. In the six months prior to the onset of the Delta variant, job growth averaged 710,000 per month. However, job growth fell to an average of 405,000—still a respectable pace though notably lower than in previous months—as the U.S. experienced a significant spike in cases attributable to the Delta variant. Previous research has also shown positive correlation between employment growth and a state’s vaccination progress. Specifically, between January and October 2021, states with higher vaccination rates experienced faster job growth in leisure and hospitality, two industries that were hard-hit by the pandemic.
Even more, the economic effects of COVID-19 are by far the largest drivers of the acceleration in U.S. inflation in 2021. Inflation rates are higher than usual because the pandemic has reallocated consumer spending away from services and towards goods, exacerbating supply chain problems. One reason why U.S. inflation has been more pronounced than in other countries is because our COVID-19 case counts have been higher. As a result, public health policy is clearly the most effective economic policy we have to tamp inflation back down.
It is imperative that OSHA issue a COVID-19 worker protection standard to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. No worker should have to sacrifice their livelihood for a paycheck.
A COVID-19 standard must include provisions at a minimum for:
- A COVID-19 worker protection plan. This plan must be in writing for employers with more than 10 employees. The plan must be made available to workers and their representatives at no cost. Workers must have input into this plan prior to it being finalized. Workers must be trained in the procedures and policies outlined in the plan.
- Implementation of mitigation measures for all workers at no cost to employees including:
- Vaccines (including paid time off to access vaccines and to recover from temporary reaction)
- Regular testing (twice weekly)
- Providing high quality face coverings to all workers (and respirators if necessary)
- Physical distancing
- Improved ventilation
- Routine cleaning/disinfection and the provision of hand sanitizers and ability to wash hands frequently
- Employee training and education in a language and vocabulary workers understand
- Isolation /Quarantine requirements for sick and exposed workers (including provisions for medical removal pay)
- Reporting and recording requirements that include:
- Notification to public health agencies of two or more cases of
COVID-19 of employees present in the workplace within a 14-
- Notification to OSHA of two or more cases of COVID-19 among
employees present in the workplace within 14 days
- Recording and Reporting to OSHA of all employee cases of
COVID-19 that involved hospitalizations and death
- Recording of all work related COVID-19 cases among employees
- Notification to public health agencies of two or more cases of
- Protections from retaliation from
- Reporting a COVID-19 possible or confirmed infection
- Requesting improved safety measures
- Raising concerns about current protections to the employer,
employee representative, other employees, a government agency or the
public such as through print, online, social or any other media.
We urge the agency to move quickly to implement a permanent COVID-19 worker protection standard.
Economic Policy Institute