In the first month of the Biden administration, we’ve already seen several notable executive orders, memorandums and appointments related to worker safety and health and the labor movement as a whole. While many of these changes revolve around providing better protections for workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, others offer additional insight into what we can expect from this administration over the next four years.
“The executive orders and regulatory priorities released so far are a roadmap to where this administration is headed,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “It’s going to take work to get there, but it’s promising to see that the safety and health of workers is finally being put front and center again.”
Stopping the COVID-19 Pandemic
President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety directed OSHA to update COVID-19 safety recommendations for employers, review its enforcement efforts and determine whether an emergency temporary standard (ETS) is necessary. A potential ETS is the biggest news here, with the important date being March 15th – that’s the deadline to issue a standard if OSHA deems one necessary. This executive order also directed the Department of Labor to conduct a multilingual outreach program about its efforts to protect workers from COVID-19 and do a better job of publicizing them.
Following this order, OSHA issued stronger COVID-19 guidance at the end of January. This new guidance recommends employers conduct COVID-19 hazard assessments, identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus (e.g., improving ventilation and routine cleaning), adopt policies that encourage potentially infected workers to stay home and implement protections to ensure workers who raise concerns are not retaliated against. Overall, the guidance emphasizes workers’ rights and their role in limiting the spread of the virus through the use of face coverings and good hygiene practices.
Shifting Regulatory Priorities
In addition to taking action on COVID-19, President Biden issued several other executive orders aimed at protecting worker safety and health. Among them:
- Supporting the regulatory process. This executive order revokes several orders issued during the Trump administration that made creating new safety and health standards much more difficult. This includes revoking what was commonly called the “two for one” executive order, which required any agency issuing a new regulation to remove two previous regulations, and other orders that sought to slow or dismantle the regulatory process entirely.
- Advancing racial equity. This executive order states the importance of “advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” This order directs all federal agencies to assess whether current policies reinforce existing barriers to equity and determine what policy changes are necessary to eliminate those barriers. As we’ve covered in recent Lifelines articles, a lack of racial equity has affected millions of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to affect overall worker health and wellbeing.
Changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
While it’s not very glamorous, the NLRB plays an important role in the labor movement. The independent agency settles disputes related to collective bargaining and unfair labor practices, often weighing in on decisions such as whether an employer interfered in workers’ attempt to unionize.
Under the guidance of Trump-appointed lawyer Peter Robb, NLRB decisions that were previously going in favor of unions started going sharply in the other direction. In a move that was praised by the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, President Biden fired Robb from his position as general counsel of the NLRB.
“Robb mounted an unrelenting attack for more than three years on workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “His actions … violated the stated purpose of the National Labor Relations Act – to encourage collective bargaining.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic shining more light on the health and safety protections in unionized workplaces, support for labor unions is on the rise. It’s important that workers who want to join a union have the ability to do so, especially when that decision can have a positive impact on their health as well as their paycheck.
Potential Future Policies
President Biden has also indicated support for a number of other potential changes – including broader anti-discrimination laws, new rules around classifications for temp workers and the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.