For the health and sanity of workers, the federal government needs to stop issuing head-scratching COVID work guidelines

·4 min read
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A grocery store worker at Publix. Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Confusing CDC guidelines on masks-wearing failed to account for the impact on workers.

  • More than 4.2 million workers are not going back to work due to fear of getting or spreading COVID-19.

  • OSHA's long overdue standard on COVID-19 must be approved and implemented without delay.

  • Gina Cummings is the Vice President of Advocacy, Alliances & Policy for Oxfam America.

  • Jessica E. Martinez, MPH, is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Is the COVID-19 emergency finally over? No - it's not even close.

Recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most settings reflects an unacceptable failure to consider the impact on low-wage workers who continue to face grave risks from the pandemic. The guidance has led to confusion for US businesses, a call to clarify "vague language" from the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and a strong condemnation from National Nurses United (NNU).

"This dangerous guidance," NNU said in a statement, "puts nurses, other essential workers, children, and medically vulnerable people at risk."

Instead of muddled recommendations from the CDC, America's workers and employers need uniform, enforceable protections against COVID-19. It's time to hear from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). After months of delay, OSHA finally drafted a COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard in late April, submitting it to the Office of Management and Budget for final review. The budget agency must approve this life-saving rule as soon as possible.

The US is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. But only 39% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and barely half have had one dose - which means we are not even close to herd immunity.

After months of isolation and nearly 600,000 deaths, we're all eager to return to some kind of normalcy. But we can't return to normal or fully rebuild our economy until our workplaces are safe. Right now, workers know that's not the case. A recent US Census survey found that more than 4.2 million workers are not going back to work due to fear of getting or spreading COVID-19. That accounts for half of the 8.4 million jobs that have gone unfilled since the start of the pandemic.

Workers need clear guidelines for protection

Workers' fears are well founded, based on research from California, Massachusetts and Ontario. Frontline workers who are exposed on the job are more likely than others to get infected and account for a significant share of COVID-19 illnesses and fatalities. A disproportionate number of those in harm's way are Black and brown workers, who have suffered higher rates of illness and death during the pandemic.

Absent a clear workplace standard from OSHA, the confusing CDC guidance creates new problems for frontline workers. They'll now face increased exposure to unmasked people who may or may not be vaccinated. How are workers supposed to know which is which?

To get our economy up and running again, workers and businesses need to be sure our workplaces are as safe as possible. OSHA's Emergency Temporary Standard, which is still pending is the first step towards creating permanent rules to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The contents of the Standard are not public during the review, however, it is expected to be consistent with voluntary guidance issued in January. If so, every employer will be required to have a COVID-19 prevention plan, with full input from workers.

Having workers involved in every step of the process is crucial. Workers know where the hazards are in their workplaces and how to reduce or eliminate them. Any plan to confront the spread of infectious disease - or any other occupational risk - that does not give workers a seat at the table will not succeed.

A strong COVID-19 safety rule, backed by rigorous enforcement, will save workers' lives. Businesses will have an easier time finding people to fill key positions and save money on medical costs. COVID-19, like other preventable hazards, is very expensive. A mild case of coronavirus can cost an employer $4,300 for workers' compensation claims; a serious case, more than $1 million.

Those of us who were able to stay at home during the pandemic relied on frontline workers to keep our lights on and our refrigerators full - and to take care of us when we got sick. A worker-centered, enforceable COVID-19 safety standard is the least we can do for all of them - and for millions of people who are justifiably hesitant to return to unprotected workplaces.

Gina Cummings is Vice President of Alliances, Advocacy, and Policy for Oxfam America. Jessica E. Martinez is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).

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