Work to Die For: COVID-19 and U.S. Labor

Gustavo “Kike” Ramirez would have turned 17 this year. He died when his employer failed to provide him with a safety harness at a Nashville, Tennessee construction site on June 23, 2020.

“It was ten months ago, and I still think about him every day,” said Jenifer Enamorado Ayala, recalling her brother’s preventable fall that ended his life at age 16. She is one of the family members and co-workers remembering those who lost their lives on the job for Workers’ Memorial Week – April 24 – May 3, 2021.

“We’re fighting now to make everyone’s job safer, so no other family has to suffer this kind of tragedy,” said Enamorado Ayala, joining Workers’ Dignity in Nashville to reform the city’s building code.

During a virtual National Speak Out to observe Workers’ Memorial Week, labor safety activists called for a new COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to save workers’ lives. Jessica Martinez is the co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). She hosted the online commemoration.

“The health and safety movement has been fighting for mandatory COVID rules in the workplace since this pandemic started,” she said. “Getting the ETS to the White House is a huge victory; now we have to make sure this life-saving rule is rapidly approved and rigorously enforced.”

The new COVID-19 ETS rule would require all employers to create pandemic protection plans with full input for workers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) transmitted the rule to the White House this week for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review.

To date, U.S. employees have gone without COVID-19 safety rules for their employers to obey. Think about what that means.

“We know that mandatory COVID-19 safety rules will reduce risk in our workplaces, which is essential to stopping the spread of the pandemic in our communities,” said Martinez. Community spread of the coronavirus created the U.S. public health disaster, driving a country with four percent of the globe‘s population to experience one-fourth of earth’s pandemic fatalities.

Martinez continued. “Worker health is public health. Workers go home at the end of every shift—so unless we are safe at work, we won’t be safe at home, either.”

Pascaline Muhindura is a nurse at HCA’s Research Medical Center in Kansas City, MO and a member of National Nurses United. “Over the course of the past year, every single nurse and health care worker in my unit has contracted Covid-19,” she said “That includes my beloved co-worker Celia Yap Banago who died last April after taking care of a patient with COVID-19 at my facility.”

The lack of Personal Protective Equipment for health care workers is a disaster of the for profit health care system. The reason why in big part is the lack of a profit in maintaining adequate supplies. Yet the consequences of this deficit are lethal.

“Despite the grave risks to hospital workers, we still don’t have the personal protective equipment we need,” said Muhindura. “In my hospital, we are still fighting for N95 masks to be used for single use only, as intended by the manufacturer, and there is only limited stock of more protective, reusable respirators.”

A National COSH report, released April 27, “Deadly Risks, Costly Failures,” found:

Worker complaints to OSHA increased by 20% in 2020 when compared to 2019—but safety inspections dropped by 50%;

No public agency is monitoring workplace infections or fatalities from COVID-19.  The total number of those who have died after workplace exposure is untracked and unknown.

In Ontario, researchers estimate that 20 percent of infections among working-age adults is due to workplace transmission.

In California, researchers found significant excess mortality among front line workers due to COVID-19:

+ A 39% increase in mortality among food and agriculture workers

+ A 28% increase among facilities workers

+ A 27% increase among transportation/logistics workers.

+ A 23% increase among manufacturing workers

+ A 19% increase among health and emergency workers.

The OMB’S Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs could publish the new workplace safety requirements by early May, at which point they would be “likely to take effect immediately,” according to Politico.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email