More worker power is the only sure path to safe work and pandemic recovery

Trapped at work during an intense storm that generated multiple tornadoes, six Amazon workers in Illinois and eight workers at a Kentucky candle factory died tragic, preventable deaths at the end of 2021. Their deaths brought brief visibility and attention to the reality that unless workers have a union, many lack the power to refuse unsafe work even in the face of extreme hazards.

As we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, there likewise remains no refuge from the ever-present hazard of coronavirus exposure for millions of front-line workers whose jobs often require in-person work, long hours in unventilated spaces, frequent contact with co-workers or the public, and no guarantee of paid leave or health insurance.

Policy failures are contributing to untold numbers of worker deaths

Since early in the pandemic, EPI research sounded the alarm that weak labor protections, eroded worker power, and economic inequality were leaving working people and particularly low-wage workers—disproportionately women and workers of color—to bear the greatest costs of the pandemic.

Studies of COVID-19 mortality data reflect the devastating impact of policy failures to protect front-line workers. Among multiple factors contributing to racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates are distinctions between who can and cannot work safely from home during the pandemic. Data show telework during the pandemic has been more common for workers with advanced degrees, and less likely for Black and Hispanic workers, regardless of education levels. If all U.S. residents experienced the same COVID-19 mortality rates as college-educated white individuals, there would have been 48% fewer COVID-19 deaths among adults overall in 2020 and 89% fewer deaths among Black and Brown adults ages 25 to 64 years old. While it is likely we are experiencing the greatest workplace death toll and largest mass disabling event in U.S. history, even these disturbing numbers tell only part of the story.

The U.S. still lacks a centralized system for tracking pandemic workplace exposures or fatalities, and mounting evidence suggests official COVID-19 death counts across the country represent a significant undercount. Workplace fatality data released at the end of 2021 by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics don’t include workers who died after contracting COVID-19 at work. An October 2021 report from the Congressional Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus showed infection and death rates among meatpacking workers in 2020 were at least three times as high as previously thought, while noting that available data remain incomplete. Unions and worker advocates continue to attempt to fill the vacuum with sobering digital memorials listing names and sometimes faces of workers lost to COVID-19, and crowd-sourced databases for reporting worker fatalities.

Too many workplaces are becoming more hazardous, not less

We face a dangerous juncture as we enter 2022. We know the deadly risks COVID-19 poses for workers, especially for Black, Brown, and immigrant workers. And we know a great deal about proven measures employers can take to mitigate these risks. Some unionized workers have had the power to compel employers to maintain recommended elements of infection control plans including ventilation, social distancing, high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE), paid leave, and on-site testing and contact tracing. But most workers still lack the power to demand safe work, and right now many workplaces are becoming more hazardous, not less.

Unions and advocates have called for comprehensive, enforceable COVID-19 workplace safety standards since the start of the pandemic. Voluntary employer “guidance” has proven predictably ineffective, and many employers have pulled back on safety measures in place at previous stages of the pandemic. COVID transmission has surged inside Amazon warehouses that rolled back earlier COVID safety policies like in-house testing, extended paid breaks, social distancing, and masking. While encouraging employees to seek vaccination, few retail employers are adopting (or reinstating) other workplace safety precautions amid the Omicron variant surge, undermining progress and endangering workers and the public anew. Meatpacking workers continue to report management pressure to continue working while sick, and major companies like Delta airlines are cutting back on emergency paid leave just when workers need it most.

Employer pressure at year’s end resulted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scaling back isolation or quarantine recommendations for ill or exposed workers, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) closed out 2021 by withdrawing its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for health care. OSHA’s important vaccine or test mandate is poised to take effect in 2022, but does not yet include standards on key measures like ventilation, high-quality PPE, or social distancing. Emergency sick leave was mandated for some employers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in 2020, but Congress allowed FFCRA to expire a year ago. Depending on where they live, some workers may be covered by emergency state or local COVID-19 protections, but nearly all these measures are temporary.

Union strategies and worker collective actions provide roadmaps for making work safe

While unions continue to call for the comprehensive federal OSHA workplace safety standards all workers deserve, it’s increasingly clear that there’s no path out of the ongoing pandemic without empowering workers in many more U.S. workplaces. Vaccines are one crucial ingredient of pandemic workplace safety, but simultaneously allowing employers to abandon other workplace protections will only serve to undermine vaccines’ effectiveness. Implementation of the new OSHA vaccine-or-test mandate in 2022 must be viewed as just one essential component of COVID-19 workplace safety plans, which must involve workers in order to be effective. The good news is that we have organizing and policy roadmaps to follow.

We can learn from the effectiveness of the OSHA COVID-19 health care Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which saved lives of nurses, doctors, staff, and patients during the six months it was in effect in 2021. The health care ETS established the first national enforceable standard for employers to implement COVID-19 hazard control plans, and in 2022 its provisions should be made permanent and extended to other industries as originally intended.

We can also learn from the heavily unionized airline industry, where layered safety protocols including high-quality air filtration, leave policies, and mask mandates temporarily made the airplane cabin “one of the most controlled environments in public life” and one of the safest workplaces. We can learn from the comprehensive COVID safety plans negotiated by entertainment industry unions to ensure safe reopening of stages and sets from Broadway to Hollywood. We can learn from the examples of collective action taken by workers across the country who’ve used union safety committees to negotiate COVID protections, exercised concerted activity rights to refuse unsafe work, won new paid sick leave benefits in tandem with implementation of vaccine mandates, and organized new unions to gain a seat at the table in setting workplace safety policies.

Without federal safety standards, workers are organizing, and states must act

Workers have had to fight for their lives and use collective action to protect each other since the start of the pandemic. In the absence of strong federal COVID safety standards, workers will have to fight harder than ever in 2022 to motivate employers, states, and cities to act. Lawmakers concerned about worker safety can kick off new legislative sessions by reviewing legal options for protecting and empowering workers and pushing for recommended policies for protecting worker safety and health in the COVID crisis. States can pass, build on, and improve enforcement of their own worker protection standards. States can immediately invest American Rescue Plan funds to expand vaccine outreach and access to rapid tests, high-quality masks, and paid sick leave.

States can also ensure that unemployment systems are doing what they are intended to do during a deadly pandemic. Workers who refuse unsafe working conditions that an employer has failed to address should not be disqualified from receiving unemployment, and states should consider the refusal to perform unsafe work as “good cause” to leave a job. Because strikes are often necessary to force action on safety and health, all states should provide unemployment insurance for strikers.

Where state legislatures and governors instead continue to block safety measures and put lives at risk, workers will have to rely on each other and continue organizing for collective survival. Existing organizer training programs, support networks, resource guides, digital tools, and COVID workplace safety expertise that unions have built up throughout the pandemic can help, and those who care about workers’ health and safety must do everything possible to expand union organizing capacity in the coming year, especially in states where few or no worker protections exist. And with workers’ lives hinging on the right to organize, passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act becomes all the more important in 2022.

It’s too late to save the lives already lost to preventable workplace coronavirus exposures, but it’s not too late to prevent more. The only path out of a seemingly endless pandemic—and the quickest path to economic recovery—is to stop the spread of coronavirus. And in 2022, the path to controlling the spread starts with many more workers gaining the power to demand safe work.