OSHA has resolved a mere two percent of complaints it received from workers who faced retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety concerns. In a new report, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a worker advocacy group, found that OSHA received 1,744 complaints from the beginning of the pandemic until August 9th. Of those, OSHA docketed just one in five for investigation; and ultimately resolved just 35, or two percent of the complaints. Of those resolved, it is unknown whether the outcome benefitted the harmed worker since OSHA does not publicize its outcomes or explain its settlements.
The two percent resolution rate is “dismal” under any circumstance because it undermines a worker’s confidence in exercising his or her federal right to report unsafe working conditions. The record is “especially egregious,” however, during a pandemic that has caused over 210,000 American deaths, many likely due to workplace-related virus transmissions. Complaints about worker retaliation have been particularly consistent in front-line industries such as health care, warehousing and restaurants, during the pandemic.
OSHA’s failure to enforce employer retaliation protections disproportionately harms Black workers. A second NELP report, Silenced About COVID-19 in the Workplace, found that Black workers are over twice as likely than their white counterparts to experience employer retaliation, and twice as likely to indicate unresolved COVID-related work concerns. When they raise concerns, workers risk losing their jobs or facing other forms of employer retaliation. That’s why the OSHA whistleblower complaint program, and its proper management, is so critical.
As Trump’s OSHA continues to favor company interests over those of American workers, unions have taken alternative avenues to secure workplace safety measures. This week, unions representing healthcare workers, teachers, and transit operators joined environmental groups to sue the federal government over its failure to provide adequate reusable respirators, N95 masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to essential workers. Among the plaintiffs are the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing more than 15 million frontline workers. The lawsuit claims the U.S. Health and Human Services Dept. and the Dept. of Homeland Security should act immediately to ensure PPE reaches frontline workers. The AFL-CIO stated that the lawsuit will force the Trump administration to dramatically increase the supply of the PPE reaching workers.
Finally, the Trump Labor Department has opened a bogus investigation against Wells Fargo after the bank pledged to double its numbers of Black managers and executives over the next five years. Wells Fargo’s diversity initiative was one of many corporate responses to the national protests over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis. The Department claims Wells Fargo’s diversity initiative may violate federal laws barring discrimination based on race. It sent a similar letter to Microsoft after it also pledged to diversify its mostly white leadership. In the letters, Craig Leen, director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the agency overseeing federal contractors, said the initiatives appear “to imply that employment action is being taken on the basis of race.” Accordingly, the Administration’s inquiries could implicate federal contracts awarded by the federal government.
The Labor Department inquiries follow Trump’s executive order prohibiting government contractors like Microsoft and Wells Fargo from offering racial sensitivity training. Civil rights groups condemned the order as a sign of “support for white supremacists while demonstrating deep hostility to civil rights and racial justice.” The moves by the administration are evident of its concerted strategy to tamp down on organizational diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within businesses around the country.