Feds Miss A March Deadline For COVID-19 Workplace Standards

Sources tell Newsy OSHA drafted new standards but has yet to release them as opposition mounts from business interest groups.

Video Transcript

- This was considered a hot spot.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Early in the pandemic, hundreds of people tested positive for coronavirus who all worked at a Colorado meatpacking plant.

- A facility where it was virtually impossible to socially distance.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: A whistleblower spoke under cover last year to our affiliate Denver 7 after six deaths of JBS Foods employees.

- I put my family at risk everyday by going to that job and coming home.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: OSHA is still limited in how it can respond to reports of COVID concerns in the workplace. The federal agency issued fines of over $15,000 against JBS, which strongly disputes claims that it failed to protect employees against exposures to COVID-19.

DAVID MICHAELS: For a multi-billion dollar company, it's, you know, not even a slap on the wrist.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: David Michaels, OSHA administrator under President Obama, says, it's an example of the need for new COVID-specific rules to protect workers, rather than a catchall general safety standard that requires a workplace be free from danger.

DAVID MICHAELS: It's extremely difficult for OSHA to use what's called the general duty clause.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: Data from OSHA shows the federal agency has received a flood of COVID-related safety complaints-- over 14,000 since the pandemic began-- but has issued just 372 citations as of March 4.

JOE BIDEN: This next one is keeping workers safe.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: President Biden says OSHA should be doing more. On his first full day in office, he ordered the agency to consider emergency temporary standards. They might spell out rules for mask use, social distancing, and handwashing breaks.

JOE BIDEN: So that you are better protected from this virus while you have to continue to work.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: The president gave OSHA until March 15 to act, but that day has come and gone. Two sources outside but close to OSHA tell us the agency actually drafted COVID standards in mid-March, but never released them. So what happened?

In a statement, a Department of Labor spokesperson tells us OSHA's still trying to learn about best practices and challenges in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace and is taking the time to get this right. We also learned OSHA's been getting pushback from powerful interest groups opposing new COVID standards.

ED EGEE: We just really question whether or not this is a time for OSHA to take such an extraordinary step.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: The US Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation arguing, businesses are protecting their employees and customers just fine on their own following CDC guidelines.

ED EGEE: We've had mask mandates. We've done signage. We've done Plexiglas. We've done one-way aisles. We've done capacity limits-- all the things you're familiar with at your local grocery store.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: They won't rule out challenging new mandates in court. OSHA did take the step last month of launching a national emphasis program to focus enforcement efforts on large workplaces with high coronavirus risk. Michael says, without standards, there's not much OSHA can do.

DAVID MICHAELS: Most employers are law abiding, and they try to follow the law. Right now, it's just a bunch of suggestions out there. So it's easy to say, well, we don't need to do this.

PATRICK TERPSTRA: There are over 60,000 new cases of COVID a day. Still no answer from OSHA on when new COVID workplace protections may be coming. Patrick Terpstra, "Newsie," Washington.