Following months of workplace complaints, Northam proposes on-the-job safety rules for COVID-19

Following months of workplace complaints, Northam proposes on-the-job safety rules for COVID-19
A server brings food to customers on the patio at Plaza Azteca in Henrico, Va., (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam has directed the state labor commissioner to develop emergency workplace regulations addressing on-the-job safety concerns that have prompted thousands of employee complaints since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“These new workplace safety standards will apply to employers and should include use of personal protective equipment, sanitation, record keeping of incidents and hazard communication,” Northam said Tuesday.

His administration said Northam also wants the new rules to address masks in non-public-facing businesses and require employers to notify employees if a co-worker tests positive for the virus.

The announcement represents a significant shift from the voluntary guidelines Northam put in place when he first declared a state of emergency in March. The executive order recommended but did not mandate precautions like social distancing and enhanced cleaning at workplaces allowed to remain open, a range of businesses that includes offices, construction sites and factories.

Thousands of complaints

For the past several months, the lack of clear, enforceable rules at the federal and state level prompted complaints from a wide range of advocates, who argued the state needed to take more concrete steps as it begins to reopen. In the case of the state’s poultry industry, which has seen massive outbreaks at plants operated by Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center had already submitted a formal petition for emergency safety rules.

“I think everybody is passing the buck. … People are going to do the bare minimum when something is a recommendation,” Dyana Forester, the director of political and community affairs for UFCW Local 400, which represents grocery store employees, said during a recent roundtable discussion.

Northam defended the voluntary approach as recently as last week, reiterating, as he has throughout the pandemic, that workers concerned about their safety should approach their supervisors with their concerns and, if unable to reach a resolution, file a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI).

State regulators say they logged more than 3,000 such complaints as of May 1 and investigated more than 300. These complaints came from workplaces ranging from car dealerships and big-box stores to offices and government agencies, including a division of the Virginia Department of Health, whose employees reported they were being asked to inspect health care facilities without being provided protective equipment.

While Northam said he was generally satisfied by the state’s response so far, his chief workforce advisor, Megan Healy, said it was the petition for poultry plant regulations that led Northam to pursue broader rules.

“The governor said, if you’re writing these standards, let’s do it for all workers and not just poultry workers,” Healy said.

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