Amid a record-breaking number of COVID-19 cases, the federal government has allowed an emergency standard designed to protect healthcare workers from the virus to expire. A coalition of unions representing healthcare workers, including the AFT, and the AFL-CIO sued the government to get those protections back.
The emergency temporary standard for healthcare (HC ETS) for COVID-19 established by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration took effect last June. On Dec. 27, the Biden administration decided to discontinue it. Gone are important protections such as requiring hospitals to meet certain standards for ventilation, cleaning and disinfection; and employee notification of COVID-19 exposure within 24 hours.
“Healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of our battle against COVID during the entirety of this pandemic. They have cared for the sick, over and over again, and many have suffered debilitating illness or even died,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “In the last few weeks, as a result of omicron, many have gotten sick again. They are exhausted. They protect us, and it’s OSHA’s job to protect them. Now is not the time to abandon them.”
On Jan. 5, the AFT—along with National Nurses United; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; and some of the nation’s other major nursing unions—filed a petition demanding the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit order OSHA to issue a permanent standard of protective measures for the workers. The unions say the agency’s failure to retain the standard and move forward to adopt a permanent standard violates the Occupational Safety and Health Act. According to the petition, “when OSHA determines an emergency situation exists (as it did here) and issues an emergency standard, that emergency standard must stay in effect until a final rule is issued, which must be done within six months of publication of the emergency standard.”
“We sued OSHA [on Jan. 5] to say, you need to keep the emergency standards in place until there is a new standard. That new standard is what replaces the emergency standard,” said Weingarten during a briefing with AFT’s healthcare members and leaders about the lawsuit.
Weingarten was joined by Dr. David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration. Michaels sympathized with members. “There is no harder job right now than being a healthcare worker,” he said, noting that the ETS gave them “the special protection” they needed to stay safe from COVID-19.
Omicron is sweeping the country, and it’s more infectious than delta but not as virulent, said Michaels. “The numbers are on the rise, but it’s not as bad as it looks,” said Michaels, who believes the next two weeks will be the worst, but things will get better. Michaels said vaccines are the most effective thing workers have in the face of COVID-19 and its variants. “No vaccination is perfect, but it dramatically lowers the risk of hospitalization.”
Both Michaels and Weingarten encouraged members to continue filing complaints with their federal and state OSHAs, whichever has authority or through the grievance process when employer mitigation strategies are deficient. “There are still ways that OSHA can help healthcare workers. OSHA field staff are still issuing citations … so if you see hazards that should be addressed, you should call OSHA, file a complaint and get those inspectors in there,” said Michaels.