Opinion | What Biden Owes Essential Workers

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As a candidate, Mr. Biden criticized this approach, assailing what he called Mr. Trump’s “foot-dragging.” The day after Mr. Biden was sworn into office, he signed an executive order directing OSHA to review the matter and, if warranted, to issue an emergency temporary standard by March 15. Yet more than a month later, no standard has appeared, leading some to fear that the idea has been shelved. Marty Walsh, Mr. Biden’s secretary of labor, said on MSNBC this month that the administration was looking into the standard.

One potential explanation for Mr. Biden’s own foot-dragging is that, with vaccination rates rising, the administration no longer believes action is necessary. But the threat to workers has hardly disappeared, particularly as new coronavirus variants continue to spread.

In Michigan, which has experienced a surge in Covid infections, more than half of new reported Covid outbreaks have occurred in workplaces. “Vaccinations are helping, but we are nowhere near a situation where dangerous exposures are under control,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, who was the director of OSHA under Mr. Obama. A union representing workers at a pork slaughterhouse in Oklahoma, which has had one of the largest outbreaks in the meatpacking industry, recently filed a complaint accusing the plant of not taking enough measures to protect employees. (The company has denied this.)

Another reason the Biden administration may be hedging? Politics — in particular, the desire to avoid antagonizing governors as well as business groups like the National Retail Federation, which has urged the agency to refrain from imposing “inflexible and costly burdens on employers.” This opposition is unsurprising: For decades, trade associations have opposed many new OSHA regulations, often warning that the rules will wipe out jobs and constrain business. According to Dr. Michaels, such fears have generally proved unfounded.

Although some states, including California and Virginia, have issued their own standards, employees in most places are still unprotected — a matter that ought to concern supporters of racial justice no less than advocates for workers’ rights. “The essential workers getting sick are in occupations that are disproportionately made up of Black and brown workers,” said Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project. A case in point is the meatpacking industry, where line workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color and where, as Ms. Berkowitz recently told Congress, more workers have died of Covid in the past 12 months than from all other work-related hazards in the past 15 years.

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