By MARIA PEREZ
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As more essential workers become ill with coronavirus, OSHA is telling many of them that it won’t crack down on businesses that fail to follow COVID-19 guidelines.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s position has left some workers, unions and advocates scrambling to figure out how to protect employees.
Workers say employers aren’t cleaning worksites properly, providing protective equipment or telling them when coworkers became sick with the coronavirus, interviews and records obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel show.
“Workers are left to fend for themselves right now,” said Rebecca Reindel, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO.
The scope of the problem remains unknown. OSHA won’t disclose how many complaints it has received regarding the virus. But in Oregon, where state regulators have taken a more aggressive enforcement stance, a spokesman said they received more complaints in a recent two-week period than they typically get in an entire year.
In Wisconsin, state authorities are telling worried workers to raise their concerns with their employers or to call the police.
Advocates say that advice is wildly inadequate: Police officers aren’t trained in workplace safety, and many employees won’t risk calling the police for fear of losing their jobs.
Jim Schultz, of the nonprofit Wisconsin Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, says his group has received between five and 15 inquiries or complaints each week during the last month from workers at grocery stores, gas stations, construction companies and other businesses.
Some workers, he said, report not receiving protective equipment or training on how to use it. Others said they are forced to work closely together.
“That puts not just workers at risk, but it can put the entire community at risk as well,” he said of OSHA’s lack of enforcement.
OSHA officials have been telling worker-rights groups there are no mandatory coronavirus safety rules and that CDC and OSHA guidelines are just recommendations. But advocates say the agency could issue emergency rules or use other tools to enforce safety measures.
OSHA hasn’t responded to written questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
On Tuesday, after pressure from worker groups and legislators, OSHA issued new instructions, saying complaints affecting workers with a high risk of exposure to coronavirus patients in certain health care jobs may result in on-site inspections.
But complaints from essential workers in other sectors will typically trigger only a letter asking an employer to investigate and respond with a description of any corrective action taken. If an adequate response is not received, OSHA may conduct an inspection.
Advocates say the new guidance is not enough. All essential employees working now should be considered a high priority, said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb of the National Council for Occupational Safety.
Tim Bell, executive director of Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, asked an OSHA official in late March whether workers’ groups should report to the agency factories operating without proper protection, including places where employees had become sick.
An OSHA officer responded in an email, citing CDC guidelines: “We have received a number of complaints every day for the past several weeks about employers failing to follow the guidance. As an organization, all OSHA can do is contact an employer and send an advisory letter outlining the recommended protective measures.”
The official said OSHA would be able to act only against employers that aren’t providing hand soap, paper towels or water for sanitation.
Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA senior policy adviser who is now with the National Employment Law Project, has received similar accounts from across the country. So have Goldstein-Gelb, with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, and Reindel, with the AFL-CIO.
Their groups and others are asking OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard that would require businesses to protect workers facing high exposure. Some lawmakers, including Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, have introduced legislation to require the agency to issue an emergency standard.
But even without an emergency standard, some advocates say, OSHA can enforce coronavirus safety guidelines, at least in some cases, by using a rule that requires employers to provide an environment free from hazards.
With federal OSHA out of the picture for the past few weeks, workers have been sometimes walking out of their jobs or turning to their states for help.
In Wisconsin, Melissa Hughes, secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said her agency is advising workers to talk to their employers or call the police. Local law enforcement, she said, has the authority in Wisconsin to ensure employers follow social distancing and other precautions mandated in Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home emergency order.
Kevin Gundlach, president of the AFL-CIO South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin, said workers need a complaint process that protects them.
Contact Maria Perez at (646) 675-1050 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @mariajpsl or on Facebook at facebook.com/mariajpsl