For Immediate Release
September 17, 2020
Stephen Knight 510.922.1444
Mike Roth, 916.813.1554
Maria Elena Jauregui, 818.355.5291 (Spanish-language)
Cal/OSHA Responds to Workers’ Call for Workplace
Safety Precautions Against COVID-19 Spread
Landmark, Unanimous Emergency Ruling By California Standards Board Sets In Motion Unprecedented, Swift Process to Stop Covid-19 Illness in Workplaces
Workers in low-income jobs, immigrants and workers of color have borne the brunt of workplace deaths
Sacramento, CA — The Cal/OSHA Standards Board voted unanimously today to develop stronger rules to protect workers in all industries from COVID-19 in the workplace, responding to a petition submitted by a coalition of workers and advocates urging the body to take emergency action as workplaces have become ground zero in the fight against COVID-19. Recognizing the urgency of the threat in workplaces statewide, today’s vote sets in place an unusually swift state rule-making process that will enable Cal/OSHA to take faster and tougher enforcement action to keep workers safe from workplace spread.
From meat processing, to the garment industry, to grocery stores, to fast food, the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is more than a devastating headline. Workers in low-income jobs, immigrants and workers of color have borne the brunt of these deaths.
“Policymakers today heard the voice of vulnerable California workers demanding safety and accountability,” said Stephen Knight, Executive Director of Worksafe, an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the basic right of all people to a safe and healthy workplace. “We have all seen the grim statistics and the disproportionate burden of disease that has been put on communities of color and working communities. This is another face of exploitation and disregard for workers’ humanity. We can and must do better. With the approval of this petition, California now has the opportunity to develop strong new protections to stem the tide of workplace-spread COVID-19. ”
California workers and advocates called upon the Cal/OSHA Standards Board to develop stronger rules to protect them from COVID-19 in the workplace. Specifically, they submitted Petition 583 to urge the Standards Board to develop an emergency temporary standard (ETS) tailored to COVID-19 hazards. At today’s meeting, the Board heard from the public and approved the petition. The decision means the agency will move forward to adopt an emergency standard as soon as November, an unprecedented action that meets the urgency of the moment.
“We need a standard that uses California COVID-19 infection data to apply the strongest protective measures where infections are most common,” said Ramon Castellblanch, Professor Emeritus, Health Education, San Francisco State. “For example, data from L.A. County’s Department of Public Health show that many of the county’s warehouses and food-processing and apparel plants have been the sites of super-spreader events, i.e., outbreaks of 50 or more workers. In developing a California standard, addressing the high risks of such worksites should be given special attention.”
Adopting an emergency regulation means employers will have more specific direction on steps they must take to protect workers from virus spread. It also means Cal/OSHA will have a more powerful tool, compared to today’s guidance, to enforce safety rules and hold employers accountable.
“For the first seven months of this pandemic, putting food on the table has meant a daily fight for your very life for the lowest wage workers in our state,” said David Huerta, President of the Service Employees International Union – United Service Workers West. “Today’s decision means workers will soon have the backing of Cal/OSHA in their fight for the basic protections like masks, distancing, ventilation, training, and other basic precautions against the threatening virus. This is a powerful step toward justice for workers in the lowest-wage jobs and communities of color for whom going to work has too often meant having to risk your life.”
A broad coalition of 40+ occupational health and safety organizations, labor unions, worker centers, community groups, and environmental organizations support the campaign for an emergency temporary standard. Dozens of workers and advocates testified at today’s hearing.
Angely Rodriguez works at a McDonald’s in Oakland and is a member of the Fight for $15 and a Union. She told the Board, “During the height of the pandemic, my co-workers and I worked without basic protections like proper masks, gloves and sanitizer. We were given flimsy gloves that often broke by the end of the day. We are told to wear disposable masks for days at a time, and when there were no masks available the managers told us to make a mask out of doggie diapers. We feared that McDonald’s failure to keep us safe would result in an outbreak of COVID-19. We were right. I along with 10 of my co-workers and eight of our family members tested positive for the virus. This all could have been avoided if McDonald’s had done the right thing from the beginning.”
Here is an FAQ about the Emergency Temporary Standard.
As of September 8, there have been 742,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in California, and more than 13,700 deaths (source). According to Cal/OSHA, COVID-19 “has killed hundreds of workers in California and sickened thousands, and workers will continue to become ill and die until the pandemic subsides. COVID-19 is an occupational health emergency causing more deaths in less time than any other workplace crisis in the nearly fifty-year existence of Cal/OSHA” (source). And the impact has been unevenly distributed, with low-income workers, immigrants, and workers of color bearing the brunt.
Cal/OSHA and the State of California have published guidance documents for employers. But the guidance documents, while technically enforceable by Cal/OSHA, do not have the same force of law as a standard because they did not go through a rulemaking process by the Standards Board. A standard will give Cal/OSHA a more powerful tool to enforce the rules and hold employers accountable. According to Cal/OSHA itself: “While these general provisions provide Cal/OSHA a regulatory basis for requiring employers to take measures to protect workers from COVID-19, Cal/OSHA’s enforcement efforts could be streamlined and strengthened through regulatory mandates specific to preventing the spread of infectious diseases.” (source)
More information available at: https://worksafe.org/covid/action.html
Worksafe is a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting people from job-related hazards and empowering us all to advocate for the right to a safe and healthy workplace. For more information, visit www.worksafe.org.