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Biden Inks Order Bolstering Virus Protections For Workers

By Hailey Konnath · Jan 21, 2021, 10:23 PM EST

President Joe Biden on Thursday instructed federal regulators to quickly boost COVID-19 safety protections for workers, issuing an executive order stating that "science-based guidance" is needed to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

The Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety directs the Department of Labor to issue revised guidance for employers within two weeks and review enforcement. The agency should also consider issuing emergency temporary standards for businesses to follow during the pandemic, according to the order.

In particular, Biden instructed the DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to examine mask-wearing requirements, partner with state and local governments, and offer additional resources to help employers protect their employees.

"Healthcare workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of color and immigrants, have put their lives on the line during the [pandemic]," Biden said in the order. "It is the policy of my administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19."

The new president said that OSHA should place extra emphasis on communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

"Ensuring the health and safety of workers is a national priority and a moral imperative," he added.

The order was celebrated by labor advocates, many of whom had criticized the Trump administration's lenient approach to enforcing workplace safety rules.

National Employment Law Project Executive Director Rebecca Dixon said Thursday that the order is "a hopeful sign that worker safety and health can be increasingly strengthened."

"This order is a total reversal of the Trump administration's dangerous strategy to sideline OSHA during the worst public health and occupational health crisis since the agency was created 50 years ago," Dixon said in a statement.

Dixon noted that workplaces have been a significant driver in the spread of the virus, especially in industries where workers make lower wages, like the meat and poultry processing industries.

"This order will have a significant impact on improving the health and lives of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and immigrant workers who are disproportionately represented in many of the essential industries with the highest risk of spread of COVID-19," she said.

Also on Thursday, Biden said he will "fully use" the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce protective and medical equipment to address COVID-19 and refill depleted national stockpiles, including speeding up the delivery of vaccines.

In a separate executive order, Biden directed agencies to use any appropriate authorities available, particularly the DPA, to "accelerate manufacturing, delivery, and administration" to address shortfalls in critical supplies needed to respond to the pandemic, part of the White House's broader COVID-19 response plan.

Biden is kicking off his term with a slim Democratic majority in Congress, and unions and worker advocates are eyeing the new Washington as an opportunity to enact long-sought reforms to labor and other adjacent laws and regulations.

On Wednesday, Biden tapped a longtime United Steelworkers official for a top OSHA position, another indicator that the new administration intends to take a more worker-friendly approach than its predecessor. Former USW official James Frederick will serve as deputy assistant secretary, the No. 2 position at the agency. Frederick has already spent 25 years as the top investigator in the steelworkers union's health, safety and environmental department, according to the announcement.

On Tuesday, the Teamsters pushed for legislation to protect workers from COVID-19 as well as avert a forecast pension crisis and strengthen unions. The transportation workers' union will mobilize members to talk to their colleagues about policy priorities including the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act as part of a new campaign.

The Biden administration on Wednesday indicated that it was indeed considering rolling back the Trump-era rule making it harder for pension plans and 401(k) plans to push workers' savings toward socially conscious investments.

--Additional reporting by Braden Campbell, Daniel Wilson and Tim Ryan. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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