Up-to-date data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, shows that safety complaints from workers in the retail sector, excluding grocery, have nearly tripled since the end of May. OSHA has 1,315 active complaints from retail workers and counting, specifically concerning the pandemic and potential violations of worker safety measures. That’s up from about 500 in May.
Although retail is operating in many states under mandates related to the pandemic, like in-store capacity limits and mask requirements for workers and shoppers, it seems many workers feel such mandates are not being followed by all.
California OSHA only last week issued additional emergency workplace protections for employees, during what is quickly turning into the worst surge of the virus the state has seen. The additional rules include for the first time a requirement that any outbreak of the virus (three or more cases in two weeks) be reported and testing be provided to workers, as well as contact tracing, and that any worker who falls ill with the virus be paid during any quarantine period. These are some of the strictest rules for worker safety in the country, however, and are not mandated by OSHA at the federal level.
“The pandemic indicates that there’s a lot that the Labor Department could be doing, and has not, in terms of protecting workers from contagion,” said Matthew Finkin, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, and director of its program in comparative labor and employment law and policy, in discussing what the incoming Joe Biden presidency could mean for workers. So far, the president-elect has indicated plans to at least double the number of OSHA investigators. The agency overall, including individual state counterparts like CalOSHA, has just 2,100 inspectors tasked with oversight of working conditions for 130 million employees.
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, a group of retail workers joined to demand an additional $5 per hour as hazard pay, given the busy shopping season is coinciding with the biggest increase the nation has seen in COVID-19 infections and there are still a lack of regulations around their safety. Although a vaccine is on the way, it will likely not be made available to the general public for months.
“Right now we need five to survive…because we’re putting our lives on the line, and [we need] better safety and better cleaning and…actual contact tracing,” Courtenay Brown, who works in Newark, N.J., at an Amazon Fresh location, said at the end of November.
Retailers have not yet offered hazard pay to workers, as many did, in one form or another, for the first few weeks of the pandemic. But even then it was a relatively meager $2 an hour at Amazon, which ended several months ago, and one-off bonuses at Walmart. Target, however, permanently increased its starting hourly wage to $15 from $13.
“While the hazards of COVID-19 are growing worse, few frontline essential workers are receiving any hazard pay at all,” the Brooking Institute wrote in a recent report. “Most large retail employers ended temporary pay bumps months ago, despite many companies earning record sales, eye-popping profits and soaring stock prices.”
OSHA does not make public specific complaints and its data is generally anonymized beyond breaking it down by sector. But retail has the second highest number of coronavirus-related complaints of any industry, only behind health care, where OSHA is handling 2,650 complaints to date.
Workers in that industry are obviously dealing directly with the coronavirus and many in health care are facing a winter with more people ill with the virus than ever. Nationally, the U.S. is now exceeding 200,000 new cases of the coronavirus each day, by far the biggest surge the country has seen during the pandemic and bringing the national total to more than 15 million cases in roughly eight months. Deaths from the virus now are up nearly 50 percent and hospitalizations are up 23 percent, compared to two weeks ago, according to a tracker by The New York Times, which compiles government and hospital data.
Grocery stores, which have been operating as essential businesses throughout the pandemic, have the least number of complaints of any industry, with only 189 to date.
At the federal level, OSHA has received 11,243 complaints overall since late April, when it began recording complaints related to the coronavirus. At the state level, there have been 36,258 complaints. 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.
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