Hundreds of thousands of Americans are returning to work but without the federal Covid-19 workplace safety rules the Biden administration wanted released by mid-March.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet to act on an emergency temporary standard that President Biden directed the agency to consider by March 15.
The directive, issued as one of Mr. Biden’s first actions after taking office, could require employers to develop mandates on masks, physical distancing and air ventilation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently provides guidelines on these measures, but they aren’t mandatory.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh “reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokeswoman said. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”
Workplace-safety advocates want the Labor Department to move faster to put rules in place. They argue the coronavirus and highly transmissible strains continue to spread despite vaccination efforts, posing risks to many workers.
Business groups say the widespread availability of vaccines could eliminate the need for a federal emergency rule. Republicans and business groups have said they are concerned such a regulation could be burdensome for employers to implement.
Democrats and workplace-safety advocates pursued a federal emergency rule at the onset of the pandemic last spring. During the Trump administration, OSHA provided voluntary guidance to employers on how to equip workplaces for the pandemic and didn’t pursue virus-specific requirements.
The proposed rule would likely require employers to create a plan to minimize worker exposure to the coronavirus, policy experts say. Employers would likely have to present their plans to OSHA, a subagency of the Labor Department, during a workplace inspection and could be fined for violations.
New Covid-19 cases and deaths across the country are down significantly from a January peak. But cases have ticked up in recent weeks. States are easing business restrictions, and some, including Texas and Mississippi, have lifted mask mandates.
David Michaels, an OSHA administrator under former President Barack Obama, said an emergency standard would require employers to ensure workers are protected by implementing, for instance, mask mandates in stores. The longer the government waits to issue an emergency rule, the harder it will be to contain the virus, he said.
“There is a rapidly growing transmission of some of the variants that are far more infectious and more virulent than the virus that we were facing a year ago,” said Mr. Michaels, now a George Washington University professor. “To save workers’ lives we really need to issue this temporary standard.”
The pace of vaccinations is also gaining momentum. Nearly 33% of people in the country have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Mr. Biden said Tuesday all U.S. adults should be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine by April 19, expediting a timeline previously set as May 1.
Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the recent expansion of vaccines could change OSHA’s calculus in determining whether an emergency standard is necessary.
To institute a new rule under the emergency process, OSHA must establish workers are in “grave danger” because of exposure to toxic substances or other hazards. Such a determination becomes less clear as more people get vaccinated, he said.
Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the left-leaning National Employment Law Project, said the standard would help mitigate the spread of Covid-19 until the entire population is vaccinated.
“If it comes in two months, that would be a tragedy,” Ms. Berkowitz said. The standard needs to be issued within the next few weeks, she said.
An emergency rule would help essential workers, in sectors such as meat and poultry, who continue to get sick. These are disproportionately workers of color, Ms. Berkowitz said.
Over the past year, employers have instituted mask mandates and capacity limits, installed plexiglass and moved some operations outside, said Edwin Egee, vice president for government relations and workforce development at the National Retail Federation.
“We’ve already done all of this without any OSHA mandate,” Mr. Egee said. “It’s way late and completely unnecessary at this point.”