AFL-CIO Boss Says No Reopening Without New Safety Rules

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (April 21, 2020, 5:15 PM EDT) -- As some states moved closer to reopening their economies Tuesday, the president of the country's largest labor federation said sidelined workers should not go back to their jobs unless federal regulators put new safety measures in place to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on government leaders to adopt several protective measures before the country attempts to return to normal, as some state and federal leaders are aiming to do sooner rather than later.

Lawmakers must demand federal regulators enact emergency standards making employers limit virus exposure and protect workers from retaliation if they don't feel safe returning to work, Trumka said.

"Workers should have the right to refuse to go to work if they believe it's unsafe," Trumka said Tuesday in a call with reporters. "No worker should put himself or their family in danger of contracting this deadly virus, especially when we have the know-how right now to keep every worker safe."

He stopped short, however, of telling the AFL-CIO's 12 million members to refuse to return to work unless new safety protections are implemented.

The labor federation issued its demands as leaders in a handful of states took steps to lift shutdown orders put in place to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. On Monday, South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said some retailers could reopen immediately with some limitations on occupancy, and the governors of Georgia and Tennessee similarly announced plans to scale back their shutdown orders.

President Donald Trump has likewise flirted with a quick reopening and sparred with Democratic governors who have maintained strong restrictions. But a premature relaunch would be a "surefire way to increase the death count and plunge our economy into a second great depression," Trumka said.

Trumka outlined a multipronged "Working People's Plan" for reopening that emphasizes workers. Because they bear many risks in a premature reopening, workers "must have a say" in discussions "at every level," including in government and with individual employers. And any decisions to reopen "must be based on worker safety and sound science," he said.

Labor leaders and other workers' advocates and have repeatedly called on the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an "emergency temporary standard" making employers limit their workers' exposure to the coronavirus under penalty of fine. Trumka reiterated those calls Tuesday, as House of Representatives work committee leaders floated a mandate that OSHA lift protections.

The COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act, which is sponsored by Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and committee members Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Donna Shalala, D-Fla., would require OSHA to make all employers implement infectious disease exposure controls and forbid them from retaliating against workers who report concerns, among other things.

OSHA drafted an infectious disease rule during the Obama administration, but that effort stalled, and was put on the back burner early in the Trump administration. Had that standard been in place ahead of the pandemic, "far fewer people would have died," Trumka said.

Trumka listed a handful of other prerequisites for reopening, including job protections for workers who refuse to work because of virus fears, "massive" increases to the availability of protective equipment and virus testing and a federal infection-tracking system.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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