Law360 (September 1, 2020, 5:17 PM EDT) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new compliance risks and considerations for companies and individuals. In this Expert Analysis series, state attorneys general share their enforcement priorities.
Occupational health and safety concerns for workers have been and continue to be a major source of anxiety throughout the pandemic, both for those essential workers who never left the workplace and for those who are now heading back to work. These concerns are well founded.
Many states continue to reopen with inadequate workplace protections that fail to keep employees safe and healthy. States that have reopened irresponsibly have found themselves facing a dramatic surge of infections.
People must return to work — but they need to know that they will be safe. No worker should have to choose between a paycheck and their health.
Workers need to know that they can come back to factory floors and offices that have adequate social distancing in place, where masks are required, and personal protective equipment is widely available.
Workers need to know that they can get child care and that it will be safe, not only for their children but for the child care providers, teachers and support staff with whom they interact every day.
Workers need to know that if they or a family member gets sick, they can use sick time, access paid leave or work remotely if possible.
These concerns are not new. They have been raised for months by essential workers — many of whom are women, people of color or from our poorest communities — since shutdowns began in March. These were the first voices we heard at the start of the pandemic and led us to make protecting worker safety a top priority.
My office's Fair Labor Division investigates and enforces many workplace laws, including alleged violations of wage laws and child labor laws. However, addressing workplace health and safety concerns were not within our traditional enforcement portfolio.
And yet, at the start of the pandemic, many of our state and federal resources that are supposed to handle these issues were slow to adapt, unavailable and unresponsive to worker concerns. This was not an effective approach. Our residents, our workers, needed their government to be there for them.
While we waited for state and federal agencies to take action or issue clear directives on how Massachusetts workers would be kept safe during the pandemic while performing jobs that were providing for our most basic needs as humans — patient care, access to food, transportation — we assembled a dedicated team of investigators, administrative staff, lawyers and interns to respond to and provide the public with relevant resources, to call employers and address complaints, and to make referrals to appropriate enforcement agencies.
Since its inception, our task force has handled thousands of complaints, inquiries and tips from individuals, workers or advocates, handling hundreds of complaints in a day as Massachusetts moved from shutdown to phased reopening, with each directive bringing new and unfamiliar challenges. We also set up a dedicated hotline for workers and any member of the public to call with workplace safety concerns and reached out to employers to ensure compliance with health and safety protocols.
Our efforts have been successful, from protecting workers on a case-by-case basis from unsafe environments, to urging some of our nation's largest companies, like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc. to adopt more comprehensive workplace safety standards and to enhance paid sick leave policies.
In May, the state published mandatory work safety standards designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces and businesses around the state. Organizations must create a plan for how they will follow these standards and must post an attestation poster where employees and customers can see it. The state has also developed sector-specific protocols for businesses in construction, manufacturing, laboratories, hair salons, barbershops, car washes, pet grooming and office spaces.
Employers must comply with these safety standards, but when they were issued, it was not clear how workers and constituents could report a business that was not following the state's directives.
Unsurprisingly, our office saw a significant increase of calls from individuals and groups all over the state reporting deep worry about the safety of their workplaces and their capacity to implement measures to protect them from COVID-19. Two days after these standards were published, we created a publicly accessible online form for workers to easily report unsafe working conditions to our office.
Recently federal and state agencies have started soliciting and responding to workplace safety concerns, supporting local boards of health and taking deliberate, speedy action to ensure that Massachusetts workers are protected. While our office continues to offer extensive resources and advice to individuals with these concerns, we are more confident in our state government to appropriately address these issues.
My office, like many of my colleagues in other states, are dedicated to justice and equity for every resident and committed to protecting our most vulnerable. We are fortunate that in Massachusetts, the attorney general's office has more authority and ability to address violations of workers' rights than in many other states.
Moving forward, we will keep a close eye on both the response from federal and state agencies, as well as the continuing health metrics, contact tracing and testing capacity here in the state as we reopen.
We felt that it was not only appropriate to expand our capacity in this emergency, but a necessity. Supporting and protecting Massachusetts residents and workers is a priority of my office, and we must think creatively and be flexible to respond to this pandemic and the changing needs of the people we serve.
Maura Healey is the attorney general of Massachusetts.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Portfolio Media Inc. or any of its respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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