Shared from the 6/11/2021 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Most employers exempted from new safety rules

Associated Press file photo

A health worker watches a March 16 rally by the New York State Nurses Association. The Biden administration has angered labor advocates for exempting most employers from rules for protecting workers from the coronavirus.

NEW YORK — The Biden administration has exempted most employers from long-awaited rules for protecting workers from the coronavirus, angering labor advocates who had spent more than a year lobbying for the protections.

The Labor Department included only health care workers in its new emergency temporary standard published Thursday.

The rules require employers to draw up a virus protection plan, and tighten requirements for recording and reporting COVID-19 cases among workers. They also require employers to provide workers with paid time off for COVID-19-related absences, including getting vaccinated and recovering from the shot’s side effects.

Rather than issue mandatory rules for other workplaces, the Biden administration released new nonbinding guidance that relaxed some recommendations. Most workplaces where people are fully vaccinated no longer need to provide any protection from the coronavirus, according to the guidance issued by Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for protecting workers. In a separate order, the Biden government also lifted a 25 percent cap of employer capacity inside federal buildings, though it kept in place flexible remote work policies.

The new standard “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the front lines of this pandemic,” Marc Peronne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million workers, said in a statement.

OSHA said the standard, which will be in place for six months, was justified for health care workers because the virus poses “a grave danger” to them. The agency noted nearly 500,000 health care workers have contracted the virus as of May 24 and more than 1,600 of those had died.

Jonathan Snare, a former acting assistant secretary of OSHA during the George W. Bush administration, said the federal watchdog must prove that a situation poses “grave danger” when issuing emergency temporary standards. He said the Biden administration likely felt it could face legal challenges from other workplaces as the pandemic starts to recede.

Many employers, however, had hoped for a firm set of rules since the start of the pandemic, said Brian Kropp, chief of research of consulting firm Gartner’s human resources practice. The latest nonbinding guidance adds more uncertainty, Kropp said.

“What employers want is simplicity and clarity and hard-and-fast rules they can follow,” Kropp said. “It allows them to say they are just following rules, rather than having difficult conversations with employees about one set of activities versus another. It lets them pass the buck.“

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