With Only 41% of U.S. Vaccinated, Biden Abandons Promised COVID Workplace Safety Regulations

Yesterday, OSHA announced they would issue an emergency OSHA standard for COVID safety measures for healthcare workers that would mandate hospitals meet federal standards to protect their workers. 

With only 41% of Americans fully vaccinated, the failure to issue an emergency healthcare standard to cover all workers — not just healthcare workers — as Biden promised during the campaign, was a deep disappointment to many workplace safety advocates. 

“I think it’s been a betrayal of workers and worker safety,” said Jordan Barab, who served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA under President Obama. 

Other Obama-era OSHA alumni were equally upset.

“You know, the Biden administration has not actually moved forward in an effective way to protect workers,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who served as OSHA Chief of Staff under Obama. “It’s really disheartening that the standard didn’t come out.” 

Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), the Chairman of the House Committee of the Education and Labor Committee, also blasted the Biden Administration for failing to issue an emergency COVID standard. 

“With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” said Scott in a statement. 

Berkowitz said there was no science behind the Biden Administration’s refusal to issue an emergency COVID standard for the tens of millions of workers that are not yet fully vaccinated. The standard would include ensuring employers set up a plan to reduce COVID-19 transmission at work.

Many workplace safety advocates say that the Biden Administration may have been concerned that issuing the standard would have hurt their political narrative of the Biden Administration. 

“I think the Biden administration wanted to make sure that there was a very clear narrative that the vaccine is going to get us out of this pandemic,” said Berkowitz. “Maybe there was concern that if OSHA issued requirements for mass and social distancing, that that would take away from the message of why you ought to need the vaccine.” 

Barab shared Berkowitz’s concern that political messaging may have trumped protecting workers under Obama. 

“An OSHA standard is kind of like the skunk at the garden party,” he said. “The whole theme of the Biden administration regarding COVID, is that things are getting better, things are getting better quickly. The more the messaging turned optimistic, the more the message was that we’re pulling our way out of this. The harder it became then to actually issue a standard.” 

Barab said he was surprised by Biden’s refusal to issue the standard as Biden has won praise from many in labor for some early decisions on behalf of workers. 

“Despite Biden being the most pro-union president in American history, there doesn’t seem to be anybody in the White House that actually listened to labor over there,” said Barab. 

Barab said that it’s clear that despite being sympathetic, worker activists will need to be more active in pushing the Biden Administration to do more. 

“Workers need to be active with their unions,” he said. “They need to be very active with their legislators. I mean, nobody’s gonna advocate for workers except for workers themselves.” 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of the late Bill Greider, Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Email: [email protected]

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