AFL-CIO’s Trumka, Labor’s Scalia clash over workplace safety

Union chief says the federal government has failed to protect workers with chaotic, inadequate action on COVID-19

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, shown at his 2019 Senate confirmation hearing, has defended the department's coronavirus response against the AFL-CIO president's charge it has failed to protect workers.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, shown at his 2019 Senate confirmation hearing, has defended the department's coronavirus response against the AFL-CIO president's charge it has failed to protect workers. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 30, 2020 at 7:40pm

The toll of COVID-19 infections among workers in health care, meatpacking and other occupations erupted into a sharp exchange between AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.

The nation’s top labor leader attacked the department’s record on workplace safety in a Tuesday letter that described the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as “missing in action” and tabled 11 demands for measures to protect workers.

“Since this crisis began, the Department of Labor and federal government have failed to meet their obligation and duty to protect workers; the government’s response has been delinquent, delayed, disorganized, chaotic and totally inadequate,” Trumka said.

Scalia responded Thursday, thanking Trumka and saying that the department would consider his proposals, but then accusing him of mischaracterizing OSHA’s performance.

“I appreciate that you may want different actions from OSHA, but to obscure the guidance OSHA has given, and to suggest that OSHA is indifferent to worker safety and enforcement, is to mislead employers about their duties and workers about their rights,” Scalia said.

The gravity of the AFL-CIO charges was highlighted by an attachment to Trumka’s letter that listed more than 300 union members who have died of COVID-19 infections.

“Millions of private and public sector workers in health care, emergency services, corrections, transportation, food processing, retail, grocery, warehousing, mining, manufacturing, construction and other industries face exposure to COVID-19 on the job; tens of thousands have been infected and hundreds have died,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO leader accused OSHA of failing to carry out its duty to protect workers by issuing an April 10 enforcement memorandum that suspended the requirement for employers to identify and record work-related COVID-19 infections for most essential workers and an April 13 COVID-19 enforcement plan that said all worker complaints from non-health care settings would be treated as informal, without workplace inspections or citations.

“Instead of taking action to strengthen worker safety protections, the U.S. Department of Labor has rolled back and weakened protections,” Trumka charged.

Among AFL-CIO demands were an emergency temporary standard to protect health care workers and others from infections; enforcement “expeditiously and aggressively” of existing OSHA standards, including recall of the April 10 enforcement memorandum; expansion of enforcement, including on-site inspections and citations where warranted; and protection for mine workers, including a requirement that mine operators report infections.

Scalia defended OSHA’s performance in the public health emergency and accused Trumka of “basic misunderstandings” with regard to agency actions.

“OSHA’s website contains extensive guidance on the virus for the benefits of workers and employers, and, in fact, the cop is on the beat,” Scalia said. “The Administration’s critics undermine worker safety by telling companies otherwise.”

He also rejected Trumka’s assertion that OSHA guidance is “only voluntary." Scalia said OSHA has ample authority to go after employers who fail to take appropriate steps to protect workers, including the “general duty clause” in OSHA’s statutory authority and existing rules on respiratory protection and other key issues.

The secretary also rejected Trumka’s demand that he rescind guidance allowing employers leeway in reporting COVID-19 infections, arguing that the virus is not unique to the workplace nor, in most non-health care industries, a consequence of work tasks themselves.

“What you propose would burden employers and overwhelm OSHA with information,” Scalia said.

In data released April 21, the department said OSHA has handled 2,223 general complaints, 699 whistleblower complaints and 98 investigations related to COVID-19. Many of them are under active investigation to determine whether violations occurred.