Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden speaks about the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2021. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

After a year of deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking, healthcare, retail, prisons, transportation, and other workplaces across the country, and after the Trump administration’s infuriating refusal to protect workers from exposure to the virus, worker advocates were overjoyed on January 21 when President Biden signed an Executive Order calling for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue within two months an enforceable emergency standard to protect workers from the disease.

But that deadline came and there was no OSHA standard. Finally, on June 17 the Biden administration issued an emergency standard that covered only health care workers. The rest of the workforce was left to rely on voluntary guidelines that were often impossible to enforce.

Congressman Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and the first public figure to propose an OSHA emergency standard, blasted the decision, stating that “it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

The rollback came at the direction of the White House, which put wishful thinking ahead of public health. The Biden administration hoped to quickly vaccinate the country out of the pandemic. For a while, it looked like this strategy might succeed. Infection, hospitalization, and death rates from COVID-19 tumbled.

Politically, issuing a comprehensive OSHA standard was becoming more and more difficult. The Biden administration was putting all of its energy into touting the success of its vaccination program. There was light at the end of the tunnel. States were lifting mask mandates and loosening up distancing and other restrictions. People were venturing out in public again and celebrating the end to our long national COVID-19 nightmare. Issuing an OSHA standard at that point would not only have fired up the usual business and Fox News opposition, but also would have been an unwelcome reminder to everyone else that while things were getting better, we weren’t out of the woods.

From a public health perspective, though, not issuing a comprehensive OSHA standard turned out to be a terrible call. Even as the anti-vaxxers continue to criticize Biden’s vaccination effort with crazy conspiracy theories, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising again at an alarming rate, fueled by the highly-transmissible Delta variant. Meanwhile, Biden’s vaccination program has stalled. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and among those Americans over age 12 who are eligible, only 57 percent are fully vaccinated. That number is lower among those Americans who are of working age (18-64).

David Michaels, who ran OSHA under President Barack Obama (and is now professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health), says that by pulling the plug on a comprehensive OSHA standard, “the Biden administration missed an invaluable opportunity to put protections in place before the Delta variant took off.”

Current research indicates that the Delta variant is about 50 percent more contagious than the alpha variant, which was already about 50 percent more transmissible than the original variant of the coronavirus. As of July 15th, Delta accounted for more than half of new infections in the United States. In parts of the Midwest and upper mountain states, including Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, the CDC’s sequencing of infections suggests the new variant may account for about 80 percent of cases. Hospitals are reactivating surge plans to prepare for fresh waves of COVID-19 patients.

As we saw throughout the first year of the pandemic, workers are continuing to contract COVID-19 on the job. Although few states or government offices keep track of workplace outbreaks, those that do are seeing increases in workplace infections. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, weekly infections among nursing home staff in long term care facilities increased for the second week in a row after falling for many weeks.

The problem is particularly critical where a comprehensive OSHA standard would likely stir the greatest outrage, i.e, in those parts of states where vaccination rates are lowest. Missouri’s 114 counties remain below 50 percent, which is bad enough, but in 75 Missouri counties vaccination rates languish below 30 percent. Little wonder that Missouri is right now one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the country.

The rise of the Delta variant makes it urgent that the White House reverse its previous decision and allow OSHA to mandate workplace protections for non-health care workers.  Workers have far less control over their potential exposure risk than other people. Instead of deciding whether to drop into a store for 20 minutes or go to a bar, many workers—in retail establishments, meat processing, corrections, and other workplaces—are compelled to be in close contact with unmasked co-workers and the public in poorly ventilated environments for 8 to 10 hours a day. Low vaccination rates and the lack of any kind of mask mandate or distancing requirements leave unvaccinated workers highly vulnerable to future outbreaks.

The population to worry about is workers at the lower end of the pay scale. Rebecca Reindel, Director of Health and Safety for the AFL-CIO, notes that the same workers hardest hit by COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic—those closely exposed to co-workers and the public, and in congregate settings—are still at risk today. That means factory workers (especially in meatpacking), restaurant workers, grocery workers, corrections workers, and hotel workers. The AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers have sued OSHA to require the agency to cover all at-risk workers.

OSHA’s mandate is to protect workers whether they’re vaccinated or not. It’s obliged to protect the many workers who refuse to be vaccinated due to politicized misinformation, and also to protect those who struggle to take time off to be vaccinated, or to deal with vaccine side effects. OSHA can’t legally refuse to issue regulations protecting unvaccinated workers any more than it can refuse to protect asbestos workers who put their health at increased risk by choosing to smoke.

Even for vaccinated workers, the spread of the Delta variant makes work more dangerous. Some workers receive less benefit from the vaccine because their immune systems are suppressed. Others may suffer rare breakthrough infections. Vaccinated workers are most at risk of breakthrough infections in areas with low vaccination and high infection rates.

Issuing a comprehensive OSHA standard would do more than protect workers. It would protect workers’ families, friends and communities, including children for whom vaccinations are not yet available. OSHA has no mandate, nor any authority, to protect children, but defeating COVID-19 ultimately requires a comprehensive public health approach: all of society cannot be protected unless all available legal and public health resources are employed to protect every individual sector of society. Workers infected on the job become a vector threatening the rest of the population. An OSHA standard that protects all workers also helps to protect the rest of our society.  It’s past time for the Biden administration to make the politically uncomfortable decision to issue a comprehensive OSHA standard. Ironically, the people who need it most will try to make Biden’s life hell, and that will be very unfair. He should do it anyway.

Jordan Barab

Follow Jordan on Twitter @jbarab. deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA in 2009-2017 and senior labor policy advisor to the House Committee on Education and Labor in 2019-2021.