WASHINGTON (AP) – The Department of Labor will need a lot of help to ensure that President Joe Biden’s upcoming COVID-19 mandate is fulfilled. Its Office of Occupational Safety and Health lacks labor inspectors to carry out this work.
So the government will rely on a team of whistleblowers to spot irregularities: employees who are likely to be worried enough to turn in their own employers if their colleagues refuse to be vaccinated or fail weekly tests to show they are viruses. is free.
What is unknown is how many employees will be willing to take some risk to themselves – or their job safety – by letting their employers know. However, experts say that without them, it would be harder for the government to achieve its goal of requiring tens of millions of workers in companies with 100 or more employees to be fully vaccinated by January 4, or to be tested weekly and wear a mask at work. …
“There is no army of OSHA inspectors going to knock on employers’ doors or even call them,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff and a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanowitz Initiative on Labor and Working Poor People. “They are going to rely on workers and their union representatives to file complaints if the company is in complete violation of the law.”
Jim Frederick, acting head of OSHA, told reporters that the agency will focus on workplaces “where workers need help to have a safe and healthy workplace.”
“This usually comes in the form of a complaint,” added Frederic.
Critics warn that whistleblowers often face harassment from their employers and that OSHA has little to protect them.
The new mandate, which Biden announced last week, is the administration’s most far-reaching move, and has yet to encourage more Americans to get the vaccine, which has been widely available since early spring. This mandate will cover approximately 84 million employees.
The President called the move necessary to combat the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans and continues to spread. Companies that fail to comply with the rules will be fined nearly $ 14,000 for a “serious” violation. Employers found to be “willful” or repeated offenders will face ten times higher fines.
However, the mandate met with fierce opposition from largely Republican-led state leaders, who denounced the plan as an illegal case of federal abuse and immediately challenged the vaccine or test claims in court. The Biden administration failed on Saturday when a federal appeals court in New Orleans temporarily suspended the mandate, saying it posed “serious legislative and constitutional problems.”
However, if the mandate passes the legal test, the task of enforcing it will fall to OSHA, a small Department of Labor agency that was created 50 years ago to ensure workplace safety and protect workers from hazards such as toxic chemicals, rickety stairs and caves. entrances to construction sites.
OSHA has jurisdiction in 29 states. Other states, including California and Michigan, have their own federally approved OSH agencies. These states will have an extra month – until early February – to adopt their own version of the COVID mandate, equal to or stricter than OSHA.
For the daunting task of enforcing a new vaccine mandate, OSHA and its government partners are being stretched to the limit. A total of 1,850 inspectors will monitor 130 million workers at 8 million jobs. Thus, agencies must rely on informants.
OSHA encourages workers to first bring unsafe or unhealthy working conditions to the attention of their employers “if possible.” Employees can also file a confidential safety complaint with OSHA or contact a representative such as a lawyer or union representative. or a member of the clergy. But they don’t have the right to sue their employer for violating federal safety regulations.
Typically 20% to 25% of OSHA inspections involve complaints.
“You fill out the form, or someone fills it out for you,” said Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. “And that’s all the workers have. If OSHA decides not to check, that’s it. Or, if OSHA checks, but decides not to refer to an employer, that’s it. … So this is a pretty weak law. ”
Only OSHA can sue for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1970, a law designed to ensure safe workplaces. Moving outside OSHA to sue employers for negligence is next to impossible, say Berkowitz and other workers’ advocates.
Government workers’ compensation programs, which reimburse injured workers for medical expenses and lost wages, and provide death benefits to survivors, include no-fault clauses that block most lawsuits.
Even sounding the alarm can be risky.
“Technically,” Berkowitz said, “the law says that companies cannot retaliate against an employee for a health and safety violation, filing an OSHA complaint, or even reporting an injury. But retribution is raging. ”
OSHA may prosecute employers who punish workers for speaking out against unsafe working conditions. Last month, for example, the agency sued a luxury car dealer in Austin, Texas, where it said it fired an employee who warned colleagues about the potential dangers of coronavirus in the workplace.
But in a report co-written with Berkowitz, the National Employment Bill, which protects workers’ rights, found that OSHA had rejected – without investigation – more than half of COVID-related harassment complaints received from whistleblowers. Only 2% of complaints were resolved in the five-month period last year when the bill was studied. Workers only have 30 days to file an OSHA harassment complaint.
“OSHA needs to improve its handling of whistleblower complaints,” the Labor Department’s inspector general, its internal oversight body, concluded last year. “When OSHA does not respond in a timely manner, it can lead to emotional and financial distress for workers, and can erode key evidence and witnesses.”
However, most companies are believed to comply with the COVID mandate as well as other OSHA regulations. Some employers may have felt relieved: they may have wanted to demand vaccinations on their own, but feared that they would alienate vaccine opponents and possibly lose them in favor of employers who did not need vaccinations.
“Most employers are law abiding,” says David Michaels, a former OSHA chief, epidemiologist and professor of public health at George Washington University. “They try to make sure they comply with all laws and regulations. OSHA will now monitor them. They will answer complaints. They’ll do spot checks. They will impose fines and fines, and they will make it a serious problem ”to scare off other potential violators.
AP business writer Tom Crisher from Detroit contributed to this report.