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Labor Department promises to protect workers from Covid after mandate blockade

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Labor Department promises to protect workers from Covid after mandate blockade

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US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh speaks about unions during an event in the East Room of the White House September 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

The Labor Department has vowed to use its authority to protect workers from Covid, after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing rules for private businesses.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, in a statement after the High Court ruling, said the Occupational and Safety Administration was assessing its options for enforcing Covid safety standards in the workplace.

“Regardless of the end result of these proceedings, OSHA will do everything in its power to hold companies accountable for protecting workers,” Walsh said Thursday.

OSHA still has general authority to require employers to maintain a safe workplace and can fine companies if they fail to do so. The agency has investigated thousands of Covid complaints with millions of dollars in proposed fines since the pandemic began.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, in its 6-3 ruling, called the federal mandate a “blunt instrument” that “makes no distinction based on industry or risk of exposure to Covid-19.”

However, the High Court said OSHA had the power to regulate specific workplaces where workers face an increased threat from Covid.

“Where the virus poses a particular danger due to particular characteristics of an employee’s job or workplace, targeted regulations are entirely permissible,” the court wrote in an unsigned notice.

The court said it had “no doubt” that OSHA can implement safety measures to protect Covid workers in particularly cramped or crowded environments.

In other words, OSHA could adapt new regulations that target high-risk industries, such as meatpacking, with safety measures that don’t include the controversial vaccine rule, according to Jordan Barab. , deputy assistant secretary of OSHA during the Obama administration.

“There are a number of criteria that OSHA could use to make it more risk-based, which would likely pass Supreme Court scrutiny,” Barab told CNBC on Friday.

The unions are already pushing in this direction. The AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the United States, called on the White House to issue a new workplace safety standard that would require improved ventilation, physical distancing, masking and paid time off for all workers. workers

“While we are disappointed with the decision, the majority of the court clearly recognized OSHA’s authority to protect workers who face increased risks of contracting Covid-19 in the workplace,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler in a statement. “OSHA’s responsibility to provide safe working conditions remains firmly in place.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million people mostly in meatpacking and food processing, wants the White House and businesses to provide free personal protective equipment in addition to the measures required by the AFL-CIO.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 2 million workers, is pushing for Congress and states to step in and implement safety measures where the White House has failed, including universal vaccination and broader access to testing .

“In light of the Supreme Court’s ruthless abandonment of millions of essential workers, Congress and states must act urgently to require employers to protect all workers,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, in a statement.

More than 20 states are enforcing their own workplace safety plans, and some have implemented Covid safety requirements. California, for example, requires all employees and customers to wear masks indoors. Companies must also implement Covid prevention plans, investigate outbreaks and inform employees within the day, and offer free testing to fully vaccinated employees, among other measures.

New York City has implemented a vaccination mandate for all private companies. Mayor Eric Adams made it clear Friday that city rules are still in place.

Chicago requires anyone over the age of 5 to show proof of vaccination to eat indoors at restaurants, go to the gym, or enter indoor entertainment venues where food is served. Los Angeles has similar rules.

President Joe Biden, for his part, has called on companies to voluntarily enforce vaccine and testing rules. A number of large companies – including Citigroup, Nike and Columbia Sportswear – have said they will start laying off unvaccinated workers.

“The court has ruled that my administration cannot use the power granted to it by Congress to demand this action,” Biden said. “But that doesn’t stop me from using my voice as president to call on employers to do the right thing to protect the health and economy of Americans.”

However, other companies are already abandoning the rules. General Electric, which has 174,000 employees, said Friday it suspended vaccine and testing rules.

Labor Department promises to protect workers from Covid after mandate blockade

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