Coronavirus outbreak health enforcement Florida

Retail employees are concerned about their health and safety while working during a pandemic.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, has received more than 15,000 complaints since late April from U.S. workers regarding concerns specifically related to work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Of the more than 4,300 complaints that have so far been made at the federal level, close to 500 have been from workers in the retail trade, excluding grocery. That’s 10.6 percent of the total. There have been nearly 10,500 complaints at the state level, but OSHA did not break out those complaints by industry.

“Filing a complaint and hoping that the federal government will act is one of the few options that workers must try to hold an employer accountable for an unsafe work environment,” Public Citizen, a progressive nonprofit that focuses on consumer advocacy and limitations to corporate power, wrote in a statement on the number of complaints.

While so many complaints have been filed, OSHA did not disclose the exact nature of complaints. These are specifically listed on the agency’s web site as being related to the coronavirus and mainly from employees who have continued to work amid the pandemic.   

A majority of the federal complaints, 76 percent, have been closed, according to up-to-date OSHA data, while 51 percent have been closed at the state level. The number of federal inspections opened is 368 and another 394 have been opened at the state level. Twenty-two states are authorized to run their own OSHA worker health and safety programs as sanctioned by OSHA, accounting for the delineation between state and federal complaints and actions.

Most of the inspections have been in the OSHA region including New York and New Jersey, with 177 inspections to date, and then the Midwest region including Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota, with 95 inspections. The next highest inspection rate is a Northeast region including Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts with 25 inspections. OSHA’s Southern region that includes Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Florida is almost tied with 23 inspections.

As employers’ liability regarding workers’ health and safety during the pandemic has already been predicted to cause a boom in lawsuits from employees, the thousands of OSHA complaints specifying the virus show there is genuine concern among workers willing to take some action. There are currently more OSHA complaints than lawsuits, but that could easily flip over the coming months, especially should the lifting of restrictions cause an increase in illness from the virus. Most U.S. states are now operating on loosened public measures after most shut down all nonessential business in the second half of March.

But the business community is taking the signs of worker upset seriously, with many business groups pushing lately for the federal government to declare all companies immune from most liability to workers stemming from the pandemic.

Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congress demanding corporate liability shields. The letter included signatories from 50 smaller affiliated groups, mainly in California, Texas, New York and Florida, all hubs for retail.

“This is an unprecedented situation and despite employers’ best efforts to comply with public health guidance, many are concerned that they will be forced to defend themselves against a wave of lawsuits,” the group wrote in the letter. “Their concern is driven by the fact that each day brings news of more lawsuits that have already been filed.”

The group said lawmakers should enact a “safe harbor” that protects employers following public health guidance, but is still able to “hold truly bad actors accountable.”

In addition to businesses that “work to follow” health guidelines, the Chamber said immunity should be given to all health-care providers and related facilities; all manufacturers that “repurposed” toward production of PPE and related supplies; companies that have donated goods to hospitals and medical professionals, and public companies that could face securities lawsuits over rapid stock drops caused by the pandemic.

The Chamber-led group said “Congress must act without delay.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said in recent weeks that companies are in need of liability protection and something formal should be included in another coronavirus bill. 

A fifth stimulus bill to deal with the economic fallout caused by measures to limit the spread of the virus could come “in the next month or so,” McConnell said Tuesday, according to a report from The Hill. The senator previously called corporate liability protection his “red line” for passage of any future coronavirus relief from the federal government.

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