As Delta COVID Cases Rise, Gov Baker Doubles Down on Abandoning Workers

July 21, 2021

Jeff Newton, MassCOSH Communications Director
As Delta COVID Cases Rise, Gov Baker Doubles Down on Abandoning Workers
Issuing blank emergency COVID regulations and failing to protect public workers as required by law has labor leaders outraged.

BOSTON             With the delta SARS-CoV-2 strain appearing to be 225% more transmissible than the original virus and spreading rapidly across Massachusetts and the nation, worker rights advocates are furious at Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker administration’s continued failure to understand the role that work is playing in spreading the virus and for abandoning enforceable protections for at-risk workers.

On May 29, Governor Baker re-opened Massachusetts with minimal restrictions and his Department of Labor Standards (DLS) stopped enforcing its COVID-19 Workplace Safety regulations, replacing the rules with blank pages using the department’s emergency orders powers. As COVID-19 cases rise, workers in the Commonwealth have come to find that their protections on the job have been illegally rescinded. Not only do public health leaders state these protections are still needed, but the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) believes there are clear legal requirements that the previous regulations stay in place until there is a public hearing to discuss any change. The hearing to permanently repeal the Workplace Safety regulations is set for July 21 at 1pm. Health professionals and labor groups plan to testify in force to demand the Baker Administration update rather than abandon the protections.

On June 21, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) put into effect updated COVID-19 guidance for all workplaces and an Emergency Temporary Standard that covers workers in healthcare facilities. The Baker administration has refused to enforce those protections for workers in public sector healthcare facilities, even though public sector workers are protected by a public sector OSHA law in Massachusetts (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 49, section 6 ½). This has enraged union leaders who represent public healthcare workers, including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). Click here to view a video of their comments.

There is no exception to OSHA’s emergency standard. The new federal emergency standard covering healthcare facilities is part of the mandatory regulations that must be enforced by DLS and for the department to refuse to enforce them is a slap in the face of workers and unlawful.

“Public sector workers are protected by public sector OSHA laws in Massachusetts,” said Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman.

“Why is it the state worker is [not getting] the same protections that other workers are getting by federal law?” asked MNA Safety and Health Director Chris Pontus.

“When we protect workers from catching disease and virus in the workplace, we protect our communities when workers return home to their communities. …The state has a duty to protect workers and residences who are at risk,” stated MTA President Merrie Najimy.

“Public sector workers didn’t stop [work] on March 2020, we continued to do our jobs at great risk to our and families’ health. We don’t deserve for the Commonwealth to walk away from us now by failing to ensure safe working environments,” said AFSCME Local 1526 President and MassCOSH Board of Directors Chair Elissa Cadillic.

Despite the wishes of Governor Baker, the pandemic is not over for those returning to work. On Monday, July 12, 2021, Massachusetts identified 322 COVID-19 infections in the Commonwealth for the 3-day period July 10-12;. On Monday, July 19 Massachusetts identified 717 COVID-19 infections for the 3-day period July 17-19, more than double the number in one week. And while the vaccine is the best protection against the virus, it is not 100% effective. Occupational health experts have repeatedly warned that workers who interact with the public are at particular risk.  As of today, 79 fully-vaccinated Massachusetts residents had died from COVID-19. 

The fact is worker protections work. From June 2020 through May 2021, more than 1,600 complaints were made when DLS regulations were in place, with 53% resulting in violations that when remedied, made workers safer from occupational exposure to COVID-19.

About  the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH)
MassCOSH strives to ensure that all workers earn their living and return home alive and well. MassCOSH unites workers, unions, and community groups with environmental and health activists, to end dangerous work conditions, to organize for safe, secure jobs, and to advocate for healthy communities. Through training, technical assistance and building community/labor alliances, MassCOSH mobilizes its members and develops leaders in the movement to end unsafe work conditions.