Despite heavy repression from the business community and a late breakthrough in the legislative session, Maryland’s Essential Worker Protection Act passed both houses through Sine Die. The emergency measure has been substantially amended, but advocates say essential workers can still benefit significantly from the provisions that have survived.
Above all, The law projectIts importance comes from the clarity it could bring on workers’ rights, which has been obscure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, it would provide workers with a remedy for violations of their rights by forcing the Maryland secretary of labor to establish specific coronavirus safety rules, also known as the “temporary emergency standard.”
Under the Trump administration, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration refused to issue a temporary emergency standard, making it difficult for workers to demand safe working conditions during the pandemic.
While several states – such as Virginia, California and Oregon – have promulgated their own temporary standards through executive orders or state agencies, Governor Lawrence J. Hogan (right) said the It was last summer that a standard was not needed because local health officials have the jurisdiction to shut down hazardous facilities.
Advocates say such a standard is necessary given that Occupational Safety and Health in Maryland (MOSH), which is responsible for enforcing safe working conditions, did not do a good job during the pandemic.
Nursing home workers were given rain ponchos and shower caps for protection, others were told to reuse disposable PPE or purchase their own, and many were not told of positive cases of COVID- 19 nearby, said Ricarra Jones, political director of the 1199 Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 10,000 health workers in Maryland and Washington, DC.
And workers at Perdue, an east coast chicken processing plant, reported employers fed them ice cream in order to pass their temperature checks when they came to work sick, said Chloe Waterman, manager of program with Friends of the Earth and part of the Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection coalition.
But of more than 100 COVID-19 complaints closed in Maryland, only three have been inspected, according to a federal database on COVID-19 complaints in March.
MOSH “doesn’t want a standard because they say they don’t need it, but then they say they can’t name employers without the standard,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the health program and National Employment Law Project Worker Safety Policy. . “It’s like a catch-22.”
So union activists turned to the legislature for help. Hogan has yet to say whether he will sign or veto the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act.
If enacted into law, the temporary emergency standard would require employers to notify the Maryland Department of Health of positive COVID-19 cases within 24 hours, notify employees of positive cases, and notify employees of their rights to report workplace safety violations.
MOSH is also expected to report to the General Assembly on the number of workplace safety violation complaints received, the number of site inspections and information on employer citations by January.
“It would be a huge impact for workers in Maryland because at this time MOSH has done little to protect workers during the pandemic,” Waterman said.
“Right now, employees have no real recourse if they are subjected to unsafe conditions,” Waterman continued. “This temporary emergency standard will, for the first time, give employees a recourse to get state help, to force their employer to make these changes so that they can come to work safely and not have to to choose between their paycheck and their health. “
The bill would also grant essential workers access to personal protective equipment, free testing and the right to refuse unsafe work during public health emergencies.
However, the initial $ 3 per hour risk bonus has been removed from the bill, and essential workers will be required to provide documentation if they are to use “public health emergency leave” or paid leave. to isolate themselves if they are exposed to the virus, to cure themselves. for a family member, or to take other health precautions.
Paid sick leave would also depend on state or federal funding. While the funding may come from President Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion pandemic relief program, known as the US bailout, it would not be guaranteed, according to Tyra Robinson, an attorney for the Public Justice Center. .
“We are always disappointed that it did not go as far as [advocates] wanted him to go, ”Robinson said. “Many protections have been removed [from the original bill]. “
Hogan has included risk premium funding for essential state workers until the end of the year in his extra budget, which Jones of 1199 SEIU attributes to the efforts of union activists.
In testimonies, companies expressed concern about the additional responsibilities and costs they would have to bear when enforcing worker safety protection measures, especially as companies are also recovering from the crisis. pandemic. This helps to explain why the bill has been significantly amended.
“The goal is to protect our workers and make our state work,” Del said. CT Wilson (D-Charles), who championed the bill in the House, in an interview. “And we can’t do that if we financially prevent these essential employers from staying open.”
“We cannot mandate [hazard pay and paid sick leave] businesses without closing those businesses, ”Wilson continued.
Amid confused worker safety standards throughout this pandemic, however, this bill is still essential to clarify workers’ rights and not fear retaliation while demanding those rights, Wilson said.
Virginia enacted its temporary emergency standard in July, and over the past year there has been no evidence that businesses have closed as a result of the new standard, said Jason Yarashes, an attorney. principal of the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers at Legal Aid Justice Center.
But the fact that states are responsible for issuing virus-specific safety regulations is a testament to the fragility of workers’ rights across the country, Berkowitz said.
“One of the things COVID has exposed is the weakness of workers’ rights to safety, because if OSHA fails and says we’re not going to inspect [work facilities] because we don’t have a standard – that’s all, workers don’t have the right to go to court and assert their rights to worker safety, ”Berkowitz said.
The Biden administration had ordered OSHA to issue new safety rules to protect workers by March 15, but the agency did not announce a temporary emergency standard nowadays.
Biden on Wednesday called on employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated or recover from any side effects of the stroke.