President Joe Biden set a record for the flurry of executive actions he issued on his first day in office. But despite his calls on the campaign trail for tougher worker safety enforcement during the pandemic, one Trump-era executive action is still in place that worker safety advocates have argued would allow unsafe meat producers to remain open.
“They need to withdraw that EO –because I don’t trust the meat [companies],” Debbie Berkowitz, an adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration, said in a statement.
Former President Donald Trump in April ordered meat-processing plants to continue operating, declaring them critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act.
Several meat companies have cited the executive order in court to challenge lawsuits over Covid-19-related worker illnesses and deaths.
“I trust that Biden won’t let the [United States Department of Agriculture] interfere on the side of meat companies to keep plants open when local health departments try to close them to protect the workers and communities — which is what they have been doing,” said Berkowitz, now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project.
In response to a request for comment about the EO, a White House spokesperson told POLITICO that “the President has taken immediate steps to protect workers during this crisis, including in the COVID Executive Order the President signed on Day 1 in office,” and pointed to the proposals laid out in his coronavirus relief package, which call on Congress to provide more funding for OSHA inspectors and enforcement.
Growing pressure: One union spokesperson also told POLITICO that labor groups are working with the administration on “a wide range of priorities on COVID safety and protections for meatpacking workers” including reversing the Trump executive order.
During a press call Friday, leaders at the federal government’s safety watchdog acknowledged they had heard concerns about the executive order remaining in place, but cautioned that it may be “over read” by the public.
“It does not prohibit the shutdown of meatpacking plants. As many of you know, several were shut down even after that order was issued by local public health departments,” said Ann Rosenthal, a senior adviser at Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We are looking at what we can do in the meatpacking situation but revoking the executive order is obviously outside our ability at OSHA.”
New safety recommendations: On Friday, OSHA updated its guidance for employers on how to protect workers from the coronavirus.
The detailed, multi-step guidance provides several instructions for employers on how to create a Covid-19 prevention plan, when to employ social distance and physical barriers, and suggestions on protective equipment, and mask wearing.
Biden administration officials say the new guidance is stricter than recommendations provided under the Trump-led OSHA, as it removes a “pyramid of risk” that recommended different levels of protections for certain workers. “We think that everybody should be protected. Not that some workers should be more protected than others,” OSHA’s Rosenthal said.
However, the guidance doesn’t mandate any safety requirements, as unions and Democrats have called on Biden to do.
More changes ahead: Officials at OSHA say that the guidance is “one step” in the process of responding to an executive order issued last week by President Biden. The executive action instructed the agency to issue more stringent Covid-19 workplace safety guidance and to consider whether an emergency temporary standard setting out mandatory precautions employers must take in order to protect their workers from Covid-19 exposure, is necessary.
Biden’s order instructs the agency to decide on an emergency temporary standard by March 15.
“The guidance issued today is the first step in that process but certainly is not going to be the last step in the process,” Jim Frederick said, principal deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.
What’s next: OSHA officials also say they are working to step up enforcement after taking over the reins from the Trump administration, and are looking to speed up the citation process and hire more inspectors.
Democrats and labor groups slammed the Trump-led OSHA over its workplace safety enforcement during the pandemic, as the administration took a far more relaxed approach than even previous Republican administrations when using their special enforcement powers to punish companies that expose workers to the virus.
“We are trying to streamline the process of issuing citations. One of the big problems during the Trump administration was that there were so many levels of review for any Covid-19-related citation that generally they were issued on the final day of the six-month statute of limitations,” Rosenthal said. “We want to stop that. We want to get them out in time to impose a timely abatement requirement and in time to let people know what’s going on.”
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