It’s been almost four years since Donald Trump was elected president, promising to be the workers’ champion.
Instead, he has delivered a series of blows to working people.
This includes — but is certainly not limited to — appointing a Labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, whose interests are clearly more aligned with business than with workers; staffing OSHA at its lowest levels in 45 years; rolling back the collection of damages due to workers whose employers commit wage theft; and making it more difficult to hold multiple parties responsible for labor law violations. (This latter effort, recently struck down by a federal district court, would have cost workers an estimated $1 billion annually.)
A key element of the Trump administration’s anemic response to the COVID-19 pandemic (225,000 U.S. deaths to date, and climbing), has been its abject failure to combat the workplace conditions that spread the virus.
An emergency temporary infectious disease standard that would have protected workers and the communities they live in from coronavirus exposure was left on the shelf. Health and safety precautions targeting COVID-19 are, for the most part, voluntary. As reported in The Progressive, officials within OSHA have acted on only a few of the enormous numbers of worker complaints being received — including employee complaints of retaliation for raising safety issues. Very few actual inspections have been conducted, almost all in the health care field.
The result is that thousands of workers — bus drivers, grocery store, factory and warehouse workers — have gotten sick. Many have died. As of Oct. 23, in the meatpacking and food processing industries alone, 61,141 workers at 1,174 plants had tested positive for COVID-19. Two hundred eighty-eight have died. And yet, to date, OSHA has issued citations to only two plants, with fines totaling a skimpy $30,000 combined.
In what may be its final months, the Trump administration is ratcheting up efforts to undermine worker protections. Last month, Trump’s Labor Department unveiled a regulatory proposal designed to make it easier for businesses to classify workers as “independent contractors” rather than as employees, leaving them without any federal health and safety protections, or even wage rules. The impact on workers: conservatively estimated at $3.3 billion in lost compensation annually.
The proposed rule is being fast-tracked, with a shortened comment period — 30 days instead of the usual 60.
Meanwhile, as recently reported in The New York Times, team Trump is rolling back yet another key worker protection strategy. Labor Department Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella recently instructed its enforcement agency heads to effectively cease issuing press releases when violations are uncovered, issuing these only after the case is concluded, which may take years.
This happened in the face of a 2020 study affirming that when a facility’s safety and health violations are publicized, other facilities substantially improve their compliance and experience fewer occupational injuries. In fact, the study finds, OSHA would need to conduct 210 inspections to achieve the same improvement in employers’ safety and health compliance as obtained with a single press release.
For an agency charged with protecting workers at millions of worksites across the country, and with staffing cut to the bone, this is no small thing. And yet, with a stroke of the pen, the administration has eliminated this key deterrence strategy.
In his inaugural speech on Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump said that “(e)very decision … will be made to benefit American workers.” The record of the past almost-four years paints a wholly different picture.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the Department of Labor, serving from 2010-2018 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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