The mission of the U.S. Department of Labor, as spelled out in the congressional statute that created the agency, is “to assure so far as possible every working man and women in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” That’s a fairly straightforward mission to ensure that America’s workers are protected on the job and that workplaces are safe. Yet, the agency’s leaders, including Secretary Eugene Scalia, have profoundly failed on that front in “responding” — if one can even use such a word in this case — to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scalia and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Loren Sweatt, who oversees the Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have perpetuated a dangerous and sometimes deadly situation for workers by failing to take even basic steps to curb the spread of the virus in workplaces across America.
Both Scalia and Sweatt have utterly failed to protect American workers, especially those most vulnerable to the pandemic. Women are disproportionately front-line workers; Latino, Black and Asian, including immigrants, comprise the majority of certain front-line industry occupations, even as Black and Latino people are overrepresented in COVID-19 deaths and Black and Latino workers who become infected with the coronavirus are significantly more likely to require hospitalization than white people, likely due to long-standing inequities related to race, class and access to health care. Recently, the CDC reviewed the available data on COVID-19 cases in “hot spot” counties and found a whopping 75 percent and 28 percent of those counties had disproportionate rates of Latino and Black people, respectively, suffering from COVID-19.
In the corporate-controlled meat processing industry in particular, Latino and Asian workers endure racially discriminatory impacts from COVID-19 compared to their white co-workers: in the nearly 10,000 COVID-19 cases in those facilities reported in 21 states before June, 87 percent occurred among minority workers.
These are just a few of the reasons that Public Justice has joined Food Chain Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, Towards Justice, the Government Accountability Project, the Union of Concerned Scientists and nineteen other groups in calling on Scalia and Sweatt to resign. We need real leadership from the DOL and OSHA to protect workers from COVID-19, and Scalia and Sweatt have demonstrated they are not willing or able to do that job.
Our call for their resignations is based on our first-hand experience advocating for workers who have come forward with horrifying stories of the conditions inside some of the most risk-prone industries in the country. From meatpacking workers at Smithfield, Tyson and JBS plants to Amazon warehouse workers at the online retailer’s largest distribution center, we have helped these employees push some of the country’s largest employers to implement commonsense safety measures because the DOL and OSHA will not — as their testimony during a recent federal court hearing demonstrates.
At that July federal court hearing, OSHA witnesses explained that the agency’s default practice is not to inspect any workplaces other than medical facilities. Instead, contrary to established practice, OSHA leadership ordered one inspector to notify a plant of an inspection before it took place in order to protect the safety of the inspector, which allowed the plant to create an appearance of safety. OSHA also confirmed it would never consider a failure to socially distance or even provide masks a danger to workers — even when states and the federal government are calling on all Americans to socially distance and wear masks for their own safety.
It’s no secret — and no wonder — that the country’s meatpacking plants have become an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 56,000 food system workers have tested positive for the infection and 241 of those have died. Smithfield, Tyson and JBS alone account for more than 14,000 of those infections.
And that’s just workers who became infect; that tally doesn’t take into account those workers’ family members and loved ones who became infected after a worker was exposed at their place of work and returned home asymptomatic but infected.
Yet, despite these staggering numbers, Sweatt recently said — in response to a lawsuit filed against OSHA on behalf of workers in Pennsylvania — that the agency had “issued one” and only one COVID-related citation. An OSHA lawyer later increased that to four citations, out of more than 7,000 complaints. (By comparison, as of Friday, New York state has suspended 149 liquor licenses over social distancing compliance failures since July 1.)
So why, exactly, are Scalia and Sweatt refusing to protect workers? Only they know for sure but regardless of their motivation, there is one inescapable conclusion: Scalia and Sweatt aren’t helping workers stay safe, which is their job. They’re only helping to make a horrible, racially discriminatory situation much worse. For that reason alone, it is time for them to go.
The only way Eugene Scalia and Loren Sweatt can help now is to step aside and allow someone who will actually do the job to take over.