Labor & Employment Law Daily Unions, others push back against new CDC guidance for essential workers
Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Unions, others push back against new CDC guidance for essential workers

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The interim guidance would keep those exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace unless they display symptoms, reducing protections and jeopardizing the health and safety of workers and the public, according to the unions.

Unions have responded with harsh criticism for new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interim guidance aimed at ensuring the continuity of operations of essential functions when critical infrastructure workers have had potential exposure to COVID-19. Under the guidance, these workers may be permitted to continue working, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.

Reducing protections. As the Teamsters sees it, the CDC guidelines reduce safeguards for essential workers whose colleagues are diagnosed with COVID-19, and the guidance therefore must be reversed. These new guidelines jeopardize the health and safety of those on the job and threaten to further expose COVID-19 to the general public at a time the illness is reaching its peak, according to the union.

Why change course? Further, Teamsters and others working in the food supply chain and the healthcare and waste industries deserve to be protected as they perform necessary duties. The CDC’s change in direction makes no sense after it previously sided with these frontline workers who are keeping America running during the pandemic crisis, the union said, stressing that these workers need to be protected so they can do the job of protecting the rest of us.

As the Teamsters pointed out, nationwide, workers who have not received proper protections from their employers have previously walked off the job, saying their health is not worth the risk. These actions have left some grocery stores, warehouses, and medical facilities understaffed, which also threatens the public.

“Hardworking Americans deserve proper personal protective equipment, disinfected workspaces, and to be given paid time-off when they are exposed to the virus, not forced to remain on the job unless they show symptoms,” the union said.

Government support and protection critical. The union also underscored that essential workers need support and protection from the federal government. “In these challenging times, all government agencies, especially the CDC, should be supporting those who continue to risk their well-being by doing essential jobs that are allowing their fellow Americans to keep their families safe and fed,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said. “This new CDC guidance flies in the face of that and needs to be overturned now.”

“It is not right to ask workers who have worked with colleagues diagnosed with COVID-19 to remain on the job,” said Lamont Byrd, Director of the Teamsters’ Health and Safety Department. “It’s not safe for them and it’s not safe for this country.”

Profits over people? AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also weighed in on the new guidance, characterizing the CDC’s action as “putting profits over people” and downgrading worker protections at a time when they are needed most, and calling for them to be immediately revoked.

“These dangerous new guidelines tell employers to keep potentially infected workers at work, which does not protect essential workers on the front lines and ignores firmly established science that there is significant transmission from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals,” Trumka said. “These reckless guidelines were not issued to protect workers, but rather to ensure the continuity of business profits. These recommendations will lead to many more deaths of those working on our front lines.” Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, similarly questioned the CDC’s new approach by noting, “This is a total reversal of the policy CDC has for the public, which states clearly that people who have been exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days. It is well established that there is significant risk of transmission from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals; thus, these guidelines risk endangering workers, their families, their communities, and the public.

“Essential workers in food processing, agriculture, janitorial, and many other critical industries are disproportionally workers of color, who are underpaid and already at increased risk of serious complications if they become infected with coronavirus,” she continued. “With this new policy, the Trump administration has completely abandoned its responsibility to protect workers.”

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