The White House
has decided not to issue an emergency safety standard for COVID-19
that would apply to the vast majority of workers, abandoning a broad rule that appeared all but certain to be implemented once President Joe Biden
Instead, the administration is moving
forward with a more targeted rule aimed solely at health care
workers, which has sparked outrage among safety advocates who claim the president is breaking a campaign promise.
Following his inauguration, Biden directed the Labor Department
's Occupational Safety and Health Administration
to consider developing an enforceable regulation that employers would have to follow to keep workers safe from the virus; the emergency regulation was supposed to be adopted in March if officials found it worthwhile.
However, the administration missed that deadline as the pace of coronavirus vaccinations
increased, putting the idea of a rule in jeopardy. Then, in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
relaxed its guidance on face coverings for the vaccinated, potentially creating conflicts with any OSHA
rule requiring general workers to wear masks
OSHA has created a rule that is tailored to the reality on the ground.
, Labour Secretary
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Congress
on Wednesday that the final emergency rule will apply only to workers in health care settings; close observers of OSHA had expected the regulation to have different standards for health care workers and general laborers, but the general workforce will be excluded from the final rule.
Walsh believes that because health care workers are at the greatest risk, the rule should prioritize them.
“OSHA has tailored a rule that reflects the reality on the ground, the success of all government vaccination efforts, as well as the most recent CDC
guidance on the changing nature
of the pandemic
,” he explained.
OSHA COVID-19 rules will only apply to health care settings; OSHA will not issue enforceable rules for other workplaces, but will instead provide guidance. The rules were due in March under an executive order, but were delayed for months due to a flurry of (apparently successful!!) lobbying. pic.twitter.com/iNa2ItXByi — Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) June 9, 2021
Businesses would have resisted a strong, broadly applied OSHA rule because it would have increased employers' costs and resulted in inspections and fines
for those who did not comply. States
such as Virginia
had already implemented such regulations on their own, but there has been no mandatory federal standard for COVID-19 safety that applies everywhere.
Despite the encouraging vaccination campaign and falling coronavirus case numbers, progressive lawmakers, worker safety
advocates, and labor unions
made the regulation a priority and increased pressure on the administration in recent weeks after it became stuck in limbo. These groups said that workers in industries such as grocery stores and meatpacking
were still vulnerable to infection.
Some chastised the administration on Wednesday for leaving out the vast majority of workplaces from the upcoming rule.
In a statement, Gina Cummings, vice president of the nonprofit Oxfam America, which has advocated for meatpacker protections, said the decision represented "a shameful failure of leadership by an administration that was elected on a platform of standing up for the needs of all working people
The National Council of Occupational Safety and Health, a network of workplace safety organizations, said the new rule would be a significant step forward for health care workers but criticized the lack of mandatory protections for others. Jessica Martinez, the group's co-director, said the White House "missed a critical opportunity."
“This is an added insult to the injuries, illnesses, and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families,” Martinez said, adding that “vaccines
have not reached all workers, and COVID-19 is not over.”
Walsh stated that OSHA would be updating its safety guidance for workers in industries other than health care, but such guidance does not carry the threat of enforcement and fines. The Biden campaign criticized the Trump administration
for not implementing a mandatory rule through OSHA, instead relying on essentially voluntary guidance.
Jordan Barab, a former OSHA official under President Barack Obama
, said on Twitter on Wednesday that Walsh's announcement was a "disappointment." He said OSHA should enforce CDC guidelines on employers in all industries.
He stated that “voluntary guidelines are insufficient.”