OPINION: Safety first: Working people’s plan for reopening the economy the right way

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By RICHARD TRUMKA
President
AFL-CIO

The coronavirus pandemic continues to pose an unprecedented threat to our lives and livelihoods. Right now, the greatest mistake we can make is reopening the economy too soon.

Many people are asking when we can reopen the economy instead of focusing on how we should reopen responsibly. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to speak with honesty and act with urgency. We must do what the federal government has refused to: protect America’s workers.

Every day, health care workers, transit workers, meatpacking workers, first responders, grocery workers, utility workers, letter carriers, construction workers, doormen, retail workers, child protective service workers, factory workers, solid waste workers, corrections officers, janitors and other workers are being exposed to the coronavirus in U.S. workplaces.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have been infected and thousands have died. The failure of federal and state governments to meet the following urgent needs before lifting or relaxing preventive measures that are currently reducing the number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 will result in more working people falling sick and dying and more economic damage.

Nothing would be worse for the economy than a premature reopening followed by an explosion of the disease and a second shutdown.

PUT WORKER SAFETY FIRST
Putting worker safety first is the first step in any viable plan to save lives, defeat the coronavirus and revive the economy, as the AFL-CIO has further laid out in America’s Five Economic Essentials.

  1. Workers must have a say in these decisions at every level: workplace, industry, city, state and federal. Working people are the ones whose lives and health are on the line, and workers and our unions must have a role in deciding whether it is safe to go to work.
  2. Decisions must be based on worker safety and sound science. The primary criterion for deciding whether it is safe for working people to return to work is worker safety, assessed on the basis of sound science rather than politics or profits. It is the job of occupational safety and health agencies to safeguard worker safety, and they must do their job.
  3. Strong, clear and enforceable workplace health and safety standards must be in place. Under the law, employers are responsible for ensuring worker safety, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are responsible for setting and enforcing standards to hold many employers accountable.
    OSHA and MSHA must issue an emergency temporary standard for infectious diseases that requires all employers—including public employers in states without an approved OSHA state plan—that are currently open, or will reopen, to develop and implement an infection control plan, with requirements for hazard assessment, engineering controls, work practice and administrative controls, provision of personal protective equipment, training, medical surveillance and medical removal protections.
  4. Workers must have stronger protections against retaliation. Working people must have the right to refuse to work if they fear exposure to the virus because they have not been provided proper protections or training to do their job safely.
  5. There must be a massive increase in adequate levels and types of personal protective equipment for workers currently on the job — and then for those returning to the job.
  6. There must be a massive increase of rapid and reliable coronavirus testing. Widespread coronavirus testing is indispensable in order to assess the threat to public health before safely and responsibly lifting preventive measures. Testing must be fast, free and everywhere. The federal government must devise and implement a strategic plan to ensure the production of a sufficient number of reliable testing kits, with priority testing for front-line workers, rather than abdicate its responsibility and leave states to fend for themselves.
  7. The federal government must oversee a system of recording, reporting and tracking worker infections. There must be a presumption that COVID-19 is a work-recordable illness for all workers. There must be real-time reporting of infections from the workplace to state and local health departments, coordinated with the federal government.
  8. Employers, in coordination with local and state public health departments, must trace the contacts of infected workers and remove exposed workers from work with pay and without retaliation.

Those potentially exposed must be informed, appropriately removed from the workplace, protected from the loss of income, benefits or employment, and have a guarantee of 14 days of paid sick leave.

To read the full list of Working People’s for Reopening the Economy, visit https://aflcio.org/covid-19/plan-reopen-economy.

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