Remember meatpackers? Berkowitz testified before Congress last month that “as of mid-February 2021, at least 57,000 meatpacking and poultry workers have been infected with Covid-19, and over 280 have died.” The honor system doesn’t seem to work any better under Biden than it did under Trump. Last week the United Food and Commercial Workers filed an OSHA complaint alleging that Seaboard, a meatpacking plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, failed to report 99 percent of its Covid cases, refused to implement social distancing or erect protective barriers, and didn’t allow workers to quarantine after they were exposed to Covid-19. (The company replied to AP that it “continues to adapt to ensure our … pork processing plant remains a safe place to work while producing much-needed food for tables across our communities and the country.”)
Perhaps OSHA really is “taking the time to get it right,” as its spokesperson says. But time is in short supply, and there are plenty of off-the-shelf state rules to crib from. Virginia imposed a temporary Covid workplace rule way back in July 2020. Capitalism survived in the Old Dominion, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce registered only mild annoyance. In December, California created its own temporary workplace standards, developed by Cal OSHA chief Doug Parker, whom Biden just nominated to lead OSHA. Washington state and Oregon did the same. If the result was political catastrophe, word hasn’t reached me.
Most states haven’t imposed workplace safety guidelines to protect workers from Covid-19, and likely won’t. Governors want to believe Covid vaccination will rescue their states, but it isn’t moving fast enough to save the day. (In my home jurisdiction of Washington, D.C., the mayor is actually slowing it down.) Twenty-eight percent of the population is vaccinated fully against Covid, but that isn’t enough, especially considering that half of that 28 percent is 65 or older, and therefore mostly retired. Many working people have bosses who are acting responsibly to protect them from contracting Covid-19, and if you have the leisure to read this article, then perhaps you’re one of them. But most people have bosses who can never really be counted on to do the right thing. If the Biden administration doesn’t protect these workers, nobody will.