Florida lawmakers want to ditch OSHA in fight over vaccine mandate

·4 min read

Top Republicans in Florida are considering a new approach in their opposition to the federal vaccine mandate imposed by President Joe Biden: throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The state’s GOP leadership proposed late last week to completely end oversight of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency tasked with enforcing a federal rule that would require all private businesses with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to undergo testing for the virus each week, in Florida. 

While OSHA has not yet begun vaccine enforcement, the agency does develop and enforce job safety and health standards, keep records of job-related injuries and deaths, and provide training to employees. 

Instead of accepting the federal regulations around COVID-19, under the proposal, Florida would create its own work safety agency, an expensive and complicated task that hasn’t been attempted by any state in over 40 years. 

Late last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would call to order a special legislative session to fight the vaccine mandate. The governor, who has gained national attention for eschewing mask and lockdown measures in the past, said that the session was intended to create actions to avert President Biden’s vaccination plan. He did not specify when the session would begin.

“We have an opportunity here to take additional action, and I think we have to do it,” said DeSantis. “I think we have got to stand up for people’s jobs and their livelihoods.”

Following the announcement, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, both Republicans, issued a joint statement indicating that they were willing to do whatever it took to avoid the vaccine mandates, even if that meant ending current workplace safety oversight programs for Floridians.

“In the coming days, we will review the Governor’s specific proposals as well as discuss our own ideas for legislative action, including whether now is the time for Florida to withdraw from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and establish our own state program,” they wrote. “We believe that by doing so, Florida will have the ability to alleviate onerous federal regulations placed on employers and employees.”

At least two legislators who would be tasked with creating a new system to protect workers have run businesses responsible for serious safety violations themselves.

Simpson owned an environmental cleanup company that was fined $18,000 after a worker died in 2014. He has since sold the company. A company owned by Republican Sen. Keith Perry was fined tens of thousands of dollars for at least five OSHA violations, including two serious injuries between 2011 and 2017.

“Unfortunately, OSHA is now being weaponized by the Biden Administration not to protect workers, but to institute an illegal and unconstitutional nationwide vaccine mandate that robs the American people of the dignity of work,” Simpson said in a statement. “If Florida withdraws from OSHA, our state plan would certainly maintain, or exceed the effective safety standards that currently protect employees and employers in our state.”

Still, experts argue that Florida won’t be able to skirt a mandate because state protection plans must be “at least as effective” as the federal plan in order to be recognized. State plans are also monitored by OSHA, so federal oversight will always be present. Even with federal approval, moving to a state plan takes years.

States must first put a developmental plan into place, which can take up to three years, then apply for certification. If the state reaches an Operational Status Agreement with OSHA, the agency will begin at least a full year of observation to determine if the state plan is providing worker protection that is at least as effective as OSHA would. 

President Biden’s vaccine mandate is expected to go into effect before the end of the year. 

The idea of Florida creating its own OSHA “makes no sense,” Jordan Barab, who served as deputy assistant secretary of labor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2017, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Still, it’s not unheard of. There are currently 22 state plans covering both private sector and state and local government workers, the most recent of which was certified in New Mexico in 1984. There are an additional six state plans that cover only state and local government workers.

Federal OSHA does not cover public sector employees, but 27 state plans do. Florida currently has no official oversight agency for public sector employees, meaning GOP legislators would increase regulatory activity by instituting the plan.

Florida currently has the lowest ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers in the nation, according to a 2021 AFL-CIO report, with just one inspector for every 164,520 workers.

DeSantis, who is largely considered a possible presidential contender in 2024, has joined a number of Republican governors in threatening to sue the federal government over vaccine mandates but has not publicly backed leaving OSHA.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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