WASHINGTON—AFT members from around the country have filed 40 Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints as part of a “Do Your Job OSHA” National Day of Action to highlight the agency’s refusal to investigate employers placing workers at grave risk of infection and death from the coronavirus.
The complaints across 10 states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, Maryland and West Virginia—filed on Workers Memorial Day, detail a disturbing rash of events, including one instance when hospital cleaning employees were not told when a room had a COVID-19 patient, and another in which management refused to allow staff to wear protective masks.
There are currently no enforceable OSHA standards compelling employers to protect workers from the virus that has claimed more than 50,000 American lives. With casualties rising fast and grossly undercounted because of a dire lack of testing, nearly 9,300 U.S. healthcare workers have now been infected with the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Seventy-five AFT educator members have died. And AFT members and leaders representing nurses, teachers and public employees say the toll would be far lower if OSHA would step up to protect workers on the job.
“My employer forced me to crisis ration masks and gowns, so my union had to file a complaint as an example—even though we know that OSHA is practically powerless,” said Sherri Dayton an emergency RN at Backus Hospital in Connecticut and member of the Backus Federation of Nurses, an AFT affiliate. “OSHA was established by law 50 years ago today to ensure safe and healthy conditions on the job for America’s working men and women. It’s a disgrace that, five decades later, there are still no OSHA standards that comprehensively address an employer’s responsibility to protect workers like me from infectious disease.”
Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey, an AFT affiliate, filed complaints at Hackensack Meridian Health/HMH Palisades Medical Center and the long term care facility attached to Palisades called The Harborage: “It is unconscionable that employees still have to work with defective equipment at this late date in a global pandemic. As a union, we are advocates for our workers and our patients. Health care workers need to be able to work safely without fear of contracting the virus and transmitting it to other patients, coworkers, or their families. They must have genuine N95 respirators and must be fit-tested for those respirators to ensure there’s a seal of the mask around their faces. If it’s not sealed, it’s not safe.”
Nara Owens is a nurse at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Warren, Ohio, and member of the Ohio Nurses Association, an AFT affiliate. She became sick working with patients on a unit that was meant to be non-COVID-19. The hospital did not notify her of her potential exposure or communicate it to the hospital’s health service until two weeks after she was symptomatic. After Owens tested positive, she was told by the hospital’s HR department to file for unemployment.
“We deserve to be safe at work so we can do our job caring for patients, but the hospital failed me, my co-workers and the community,” Owens said. “They should be held accountable, but sadly there is no OSHA standard, nor is there any enforcement. Until that changes, cases like mine will be all too common.”
Along with labor unions and allies nationwide, the AFT has launched a petition demanding OSHA immediately issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect workers from COVID-19 and future infectious agents. (Supporters can also tweet #DoYourJobOSHA.)
The petition supports the passage of H.R. 6559, the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, a bill introduced by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.). This bill would force OSHA to issue an ETS within seven days; mandate government tracking and investigation of work-related COVID-19 infections; and forbid retaliation against nurses and healthcare professionals for reporting infection-control problems or using non-employer-issued personal protective equipment when an adequate employer supply is not available.
“In this time of pandemic, when one in five COVID-19 cases are frontline workers, it’s immoral that OSHA is refusing to issue and enforce guidelines to protect the safety and health of employees and their patients,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Because the virus is so contagious, workers are at risk every moment. We need to protect the protectors—that means getting them PPE but also listening to those with the frontline knowledge to tackle this disease. By ignoring workers, employers are needlessly putting more lives on the line, and for that they must be condemned.”