AFL-CIO’s Trumka rejects reopening without safety measures

Premature reopening could raise the death toll

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, shown here, at a 2014 speech, criticized the White House for failing to include worker advocates on its coronavirus economic task force.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, shown here, at a 2014 speech, criticized the White House for failing to include worker advocates on its coronavirus economic task force. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 21, 2020 at 12:57pm

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized the White House for pushing to reopen the economy without regard for worker safety and warned that premature action could raise the death toll.

"A rush to open without the proper protection for workers will lead to an explosion of the infection, many more deaths, and another shutdown," Trumka said in a Tuesday press call. “It’s a surefire way to increase the death count and plunge our economy into a second great depression.”

Trumka had criticized the White House last week for not including worker advocates on its coronavirus economic task force, the Council to Reopen America, and he said that worker input should be an important part of any plan to reopen.

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A clear and enforceable workplace safety standard also should be a precondition of reopening, the labor leader said, and he criticized the Trump administration for putting an infectious disease standard on the back burner before the COVID-19 public health emergency erupted.

“We must do what the federal government has refused to do, and that’s protect America’s workers,” Trumka said. “Hundreds of thousands have been infected with coronavirus, and thousands have died.”

Trumka endorsed a bill proposed by Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, that would force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard within seven days requiring all employers to implement infectious disease exposure control plans. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., are proposing similar Senate legislation. 

“If the standard had been in place when COVID-19 hit, far fewer people would have died,” Trumka said. 

The Labor Department didn't respond to a request for details on its efforts to ensure workplace safety.

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Other conditions also should precede reopening, the labor leader said: greater worker access to personal protective equipment, a “massive increase of rapid and reliable coronavirus testing,” including benchmarks, a federal system of tracking and reporting infections among workers, and tracing of infected contacts in the workplace and removal of sick workers without retaliation.

“If we truly believe workers are essential, then we believe these conditions are essential, too,” Trumka said. "Let’s back up our words with action. Worker safety, economic recovery and public health are all intertwined."

Trumka also took the Labor Department to task for issuing guidance on expanded unemployment benefits that would withhold benefits from workers who refuse to report for work because they fear exposure to COVID-19.

“You must have the right to refuse to work if you fear exposure to the virus,” Trumka said. “That is a form of retaliation, it’s a form of blackmail… And no worker should be forced to make that decision.”

Labor would push to include language in forthcoming relief legislation that would prevent such retaliation, he said.

Trumka also said he wrote to congressional leaders on April 16 with economic demands: protecting both employment and pension fund sustainability during the crisis, helping state and local governments and the postal service, preserving health insurance for the millions who are unemployed, and approving an infrastructure plan to help jumpstart the economy.

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