The fate of a new coronavirus relief package is still uncertain and lawmakers face a Dec. 11 deadline to come up with funding to keep the federal government open.
Rather than help struggling American families, Senate Republicans appear hellbent on making matters worse.
The Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed an $11.5 million cut to funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency chiefly responsible for protecting workers from the coronavirus pandemic.
The panel’s spending bill covering the Labor Department, unveiled Nov. 11, would set OSHA’s funding at $570.3 million for fiscal 2021 – nearly $23.5 million less than what House Democrats called for in a bill (H.R. 7617) that passed that chamber in July.
“We know that workplace exposures are a significant driver of this pandemic,” Debbie Berkowitz, director of worker health and safety for the National Employment Law Project told Marketplace.
Under the Trump administration, Berkowitz said, the agency has pulled back and is doing little enforcement. OSHA’s website says it has received more than 10,000 COVID-related complaints, but has issued fewer than 232 citations since the pandemic began.
“If OSHA doesn’t act, if OSHA doesn’t inspect, there is nothing,” Berkowitz said. “Workers do not have the right to sue an employer under the OSHA law.”
OSHA, with its state partners, presently has 2,100 inspectors responsible for the safety of 130 million workers.
Berkowitz expects the agency will be expected to be more aggressive under the leadership of President-elect Joe Biden. But that will require more resources.
FREEZING FEDERAL WORKERS’ PAY
Senate Republicans also have proposed freezing wages for federal workers, going even further than President Trump, who previously called for providing federal workers with a minimal one percent increase for 2021
“Trying to outdo President Trump in disrespecting federal employees by eliminating even the paltry raise he put forth is completely unwarranted and will only worsen the government’s ability to function effectively,” said Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.
“The wage freeze proposal is a cruel slap in the face to those who have risked their lives to maintain government services for all Americans during the worst health crisis in our lifetimes.”
In order to ensure agencies’ ability to recruit and retain the federal employees needed to staff Veterans Affairs hospitals, federal prisons, Defense installations and public health agencies, Kelley said, federal pay should be adjusted by at least 3.5 percent next year, reflecting a 2.5 percent nationwide increase plus an additional one percent to be distributed according to the size of regional market pay gaps.
“Federal employees are the backbone of our functioning democracy and they have continued serving the American people with honor and distinction despite facing tremendous challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Kelley said. “There is no justification for denying our civil servants a decent pay increase next year. We call on lawmakers to reject this insulting maneuver.”