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Cities, States Don’t Need to Wait for CDC to Reverse Harmful Mask Guidance

June 24, 2021, 8:01 AM

At the end of May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance saying that individuals who have been fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a protective mask in any setting, public or private.

While we all have reason to be hopeful as more of us are vaccinated every day, the new CDC guidance fails to consider the continuing danger to people in workplaces that are still placing workers at increased exposure to Covid-19—and how that affects the public at large. As I have written before, worker health is central to public health.

With more than half of the adult population still not fully vaccinated, the guidance should specify mitigation measures that are necessary in workplaces where large numbers of both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals work or shop in enclosed spaces—including meatpacking, grocery stores, warehouses, and food processing. Large numbers of workers have been infected and outbreaks continue to occur in these jobs, and it is underpaid workers of color who are disproportionately represented in these most-at-risk frontline workplaces.

OSHA Issues Limited Emergency Temporary Standard

Unfortunately, workers in these jobs have also waited for more than a year for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to ensure their safety from the virus. OSHA released an ETS for health-care jobs only, excluding workers in all other industries from this vital protection as infections continue around the country.

The Biden administration should expand the ETS to cover all workers and should immediately correct the CDC mask guidance to account for the very real continued dangers to the many unvaccinated working people. But state and city governments do not have to wait for the federal government to take the proper measures to ensure workers’ safety—there are clear and practical policy steps they can implement right now to prioritize the well being of our communities.

Cities, States Respond

In the past year, many frontline workers, from those in Amazon warehouses to meat and poultry plants, have organized and made demands on employers and policymakers for safety protections, premium pay, adequate time off, and protection from retaliation to ensure their safety and well-being and that of their families—in the pandemic and beyond. Some cities and states have responded to workers’ calls. My colleagues and I worked closely with our partners on the ground to craft strong protections and premium pay policies that reflect workers’ demands.

In Philadelphia, for example, workers won a local law in 2020 to protect them from retaliation if they report an employer’s violation of public health orders. Colorado passed a similar statewide measure.

At least a dozen cities have adopted premium pay laws for grocery workers and, in some cases, drug store workers, while Seattle now requires premium pay for app-based delivery workers. Just as overtime laws require workers be paid a premium for working more than 40 hours per week, premium pay laws require employers to pay additional compensation when workers are required to work under dangerous circumstances during a declared emergency.

When it comes to paid sick time, 14 states, Washington, D.C., and nearly two dozen local governments have adopted paid sick time laws, and a growing number of states and localities are ensuring that workers can access emergency paid sick leave during the pandemic.

Policies like paid sick leave and retaliation protections should not function only as emergency patches to the weaknesses exposed by the Covid-19 crisis—especially because we know that, unfortunately, more global pandemics are ahead.

Strong and permanent worker rights must reflect lessons learned and aim for a labor market that is both more just and more resilient, as measured by the resilience of workers. What workers once experienced as “normal” is not good enough, and as this pandemic has shown us, our individual health and well-being depend on the health and success of those around us.

Follow Basic Model

While priorities and needs may differ from place to place, city and state legislation should follow a basic model in order to be responsive to frontline workers’ needs for strong health and safety protections and more.

These model laws would expand workplace rights so that workers can 1) stay home when they are sick or care for an ill loved one; 2) receive extra pay when facing inherently dangerous working conditions; 3) benefit from OSHA Covid-19 protections even when OSHA would normally not cover them; and 4) advocate for better working conditions without fear of retaliation from their bosses.

Action from city councils and counties is a clear matter of racial, gender, and economic justice—about one in four frontline workers are people of color, about one-in-six are immigrants, and almost two-thirds are women.

Regardless of the CDC guidance, this much is clear: Workers are still getting sick, and ultimately, local governments know their communities best, and they do not need to wait for the Biden administration to ensure workers’ safety and well-being.

Cities and counties can join with workers—right now—to model a new type of leadership and a more just economy that will pave the way forward for all of us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project. She is a leader in worker rights advocacy and a prominent voice at the intersection of labor and racial equity.

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