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Lawmakers Debate New Safeguards, Benefits for Essential Workers

June 10, 2020, 9:48 PM

House Democrats used a hearing on “essential workers” to push for passage of labor-focused proposals, including a measure to pay increased benefits to front-line workers who contract Covid-19, while Republicans called for continued efforts to reopen businesses and schools.

Essential workers, such as nurses and grocery store clerks who don’t have the ability to work from home, are being overlooked in a rush to reopen the economy, said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“We do not all face the risks of the crisis equally,” Maloney said.

Democrats on the panel pressed for the Senate to take up H.R. 6800, a House-passed measure that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue rules mandating employers take actions to protect workers from coronavirus exposure in the workplace. And they urged the House to pass H.R. 6909, a proposal from Maloney that would pay benefits to essential workers suffering from Covid-19. The measure was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Republicans on the panel, buoyed by better-than-expected jobs numbers last week, said the emphasis should be on accelerating efforts to boost economic recovery. “We stayed home. We flattened the curve,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the committee’s ranking member.

Witness Avik Roy, president of the pro-business Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, backed the Republican position, saying Covid-19 from a health standpoint was primarily a danger to the elderly and people who already had health problems.

The most sustainable way to reopen the economy, a benefit to all workers, is to protect people at risk from Covid-19 and let low-risk individuals return to school and work, Roy said.

Some Republican lawmakers acknowledged businesses continue to struggle to access the personal protective equipment needed to reopen, such as N95 respirators, and how shortages have led to closures of meat-processing plants in some instances.

Recent reports show localized surges of hospitalizations in some states across the country, fueling concerns from health officials that a second wave of infections could be developing.

Union Concerns

The panel’s witness list included several union leaders who highlighted the number of deaths among essential workers. Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, said the union knew of at least 914 health-care worker deaths, including 134 registered nurses, as of June 5.

“The majority of these infections and deaths could have been prevented if health-care facilities had provided their workers with the necessary protections,” Castillo said.

John A. Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, cited 1,133 confirmed cases among union members and 53 fatalities. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, told the panel that 225 of the organization’s members have died and more than 28,000 have been sick or exposed to the virus.

Castillo said that providing nurses with special compensation or benefits when they are exposed to or die of Covid-19, as H.R. 6909 proposes, doesn’t excuse employers or the government from their legal and moral obligations to provide safe workplaces for essential workers.

The bill proposes to establish a fund administered by the federal government that would accept compensation claims from essential workers or their survivors for virus-related economic losses and pay a claim if a special master determined the request valid.

There’s still time to enact a rule before a second wave of Covid-19 strikes as the economy reopens, the nursing leader said.

“It is critical that Congress immediately and finally pass legislation now that will protect nurses and other front-line workers, and will protect them during pandemics in the future,” Castillo added.

Democrats have failed in past efforts to insert language into coronavirus-relief law that would have required OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to force employers to guard against workplace exposure of airborne pathogens.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has said the agency can adequately protect workers by enforcing the “general duty clause” under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires businesses to maintain a workplace free of known hazards.

Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee grilled Scalia on this topic Tuesday during a hearing focused on unemployment insurance. They questioned how guidelines issued by OSHA could be used in place of a rule to cite an employer.

“Guidelines that we issue,” Scalia explained, “which are consistent with those issued by the CDC and those adopted by industries recommended by unions and the like, establish a legal background in which I believe we can bring a general duty clause action if we need to.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com