They asked nicely. They petitioned. Now they’re suing.

COVID-19 has caused more deaths among workers in a shorter time than any other health emergency in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 50-year existence. Health care workers, meat packers, transit workers, grocery workers, and others are at heightened risk. Yet OSHA hasn’t required employers to take any specific action to protect them, instead issuing non-binding “voluntary” guidance.

As early as March 6, the AFL-CIO and 23 national unions asked OSHA for an emergency temporary rule to protect workers from COVID-19. Crickets. Exasperated by April 28, federation President Rich Trumka wrote to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, saying OSHA had failed to meet its obligation to protect workers and calling the government’s response “delinquent, delayed, disorganized, chaotic and totally inadequate.”

Scalia wrote back, saying a new rule isn’t necessary because existing rules and guidance are more valuable and allow employers flexibility.

On May 18, the AFL-CIO filed suit in U.S. Court of Appeals seeking a court order that OSHA issue an emergency temporary rule within 30 days.

Unions have asked OSHA for that before, such as during the 2005 avian flu pandemic. In 2009, unions petitioned OSHA seeking a permanent standard governing occupational exposure to infectious diseases. Obama’s OSHA initiated rule-making but never completed it, and the Trump Administration abandoned it after taking office in 2017.

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