Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home.
“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said.
Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck.
“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said.
Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.
Who Keeps Workers Safe?
OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.
“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.
Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.
Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe.
“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They've actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they're not going to do any enforcement. They're not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they'll issue a poster or publication.”
Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA.
“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.
She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy.
“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what's happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said.
In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19.
Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.
In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions.
Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints.
“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said.
Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA.
NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic.
“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”
Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers.
Back to work
Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work.
Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers.
Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute.
“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”
Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.
“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.