Plans to reopen economy must ‘talk about worker safety’

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka on Friday warned that workers will be at risk of getting sick with the coronavirus if restrictions on businesses are lifted without robust safety protocols in place. 

“Don’t talk about tough restrictions and guidelines. Talk about worker safety,” Trumka said on CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” “We want them to open up, but we want them to open up consistent with the health and safety of those workers.” 

The failure to prioritize worker safety while restarting the economy will only multiply the threat of additional Covid-19 outbreaks, Trumka argued. “All that we will do is open up and then immediately in a month or so have to close back down because workers got infected,” he said. 

Trumka said the U.S. needs to continue expanding its testing capacity and the availability of personal protective equipment to adequately protect workers. “There are shortages of both now,” he said, which he argued will only be compounded when the millions of out-of-work Americans try to return to the job. Increasing the supply of both, he said, is critical in preventing “a second epidemic, or a second surge” of Covid-19 cases. 

Trumka’s comments Friday came after the government said a record 20.5 million nonfarm jobs were lost in April, vaulting the nation’s unemployment rate to 14.7% last month due to the pandemic-induced economic halt. The vast majority — 18.1 million people — said they lost their job temporarily. 

Trumka said having proper safety protocols in place will be necessary for many people to want to return to the workplace. “If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to go back to work,” the labor leader argued. “We will not be able to reopen the economy the way it should open, and keep it open once we do open it up.” 

The AFL-CIO, which has about 12.5 million members, has joined others unions in a call for the Labor Department to implement emergency workplace safety rules. Trumka said the department needs enforceable standards, not just issuing “guidance” to employers. “Good employers do it. Bad employers don’t, and workers pay the price every time an employer doesn’t,” he said. 

Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia told CNBC on Friday that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a Labor Department agency, has been intently focused on ensuring worker safety during the pandemic. 

“I think we have nearly 20 different documents out now, providing guidance, very focused now on safe reopening in a variety of industries,” Scalia said on “The Exchange.” “We also have enforcement tools that, if we have to, we’ll use in the case of companies that aren’t keeping their workers safe.”

Scalia said the Labor Department has a disagreement with Trumka over the means with which to proceed, but their goals are in line. “We think the plan we’re using — guidance, enforcement if we need to — is the right approach,” he said. 

Scalia added that is “flatly untrue” to suggest that OSHA “isn’t doing anything” to protect workers. “American people need to know that, so do American business owners. They need to know how seriously we’re taking this.” 

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