Op-Ed: American workers need more than words of praise

September 7, 2020
In The News

This Labor Day will be marked by messages of gratitude and reverence for America’s workers. Indeed, our essential workers have performed heroically throughout the pandemic.

But America’s workers need more than a pat on the back today — they need the federal government to do its job by providing real support to workers and their families.

Our nation is facing the worst worker safety crisis in recent history. Meat processing plants, prisons, warehouses, grocery stores, long-term care facilities and many other workplaces have experienced deadly infection outbreaks. More than 150,000 health care workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and at least 671 have died from the virus.

Meanwhile, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety of America’s workplaces is sitting on the sidelines. Nine months in the pandemic, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, is still refusing to issue mandatory safety standards to protect workers from COVID-19. Instead, the agency continues to issue only voluntary, unenforceable guidance — which employers can choose to ignore.

As this pandemic has shown, workers need the right to bargain for better wages or stronger safety and health provisions without fearing that it will cost them their jobs.

As chair of the Education and Labor Committee, securing safe workplaces and bolstering workers’ rights has been a top priority.

Since January, I have asked the Secretary of Labor to issue an emergency standard that requires businesses to follow public health guidelines to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure. At the time of that first request, there were just five confirmed COVID-19 infections in the United States. More than 6 million confirmed cases later, the agency is still refusing to turn its optional, unenforceable guidance into mandatory standards.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act which, in addition to extending unemployment benefits, requires OSHA to issue an enforceable safety standard within seven days and prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for sounding the alarm about unsafe conditions. The Senate is refusing to even take a vote on the Heroes Act, leaving workers to fend for themselves.

Absent federal leadership, Virginia has stepped up. On July 15, the commonwealth became the first state to create its own mandatory COVID-19 workplace safety standards to protect workers from airborne infectious diseases. I am proud that Virginia is setting an example for the nation, but a patchwork of state-by-state standards is not a sufficient or sustainable solution. OSHA needs to set an enforceable nationwide standard.

Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed landmark pro-worker legislation, including the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would be the most significant upgrade to workers’ collective bargaining rights in eight decades.

The PRO Act modernizes the National Labor Relations Act, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the depths of the Great Depression with the explicit goal of making sure workers had the power to stand together to secure higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.

The PRO Act bolsters workers’ rights by establishing penalties for employers who illegally fire workers for exercising their right to form a union, requires employers to promptly negotiate with workers who vote to form a union, and enables workers to use electronic voting as a safer alternative to in-person voting.

Unfortunately, all of the historic pro-worker legislation passed in the House is still awaiting action in the Senate.

Labor Day is a reminder of our duty to give workers and their families a fighting chance. Rather than just calling our workers heroes, we should treat them like heroes by securing their right to a living wage, decent benefits and safe workplaces.

Rep. Bobby Scott represents Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District and is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.