State Hears Ideas To Strengthen Workplace COVID-19 Safety

The list of restrictions on the door due to the coronavirus pandemic at Star Fish Market in Egelston Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The list of restrictions on the door due to the coronavirus pandemic at Star Fish Market in Egelston Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Groups representing workers on Wednesday asked state labor officials to strengthen COVID-19 protections for employees of various types of businesses.

The Department of Labor Standards held a hearing — the first of two — on a set of emergency regulations setting COVID-19 safety standards. Department director Michael Flanagan said the standards mirror the workplace safety measures put into place by Gov. Charlie Baker as part of the protocols required for brick-and-mortar operations to reopen.

Among other measures, the regulations establish rules for social distancing, hygiene and disinfection. They call for employers to craft "a written control plan" for COVID-19, not to allow workers with COVID-like symptoms to report for duty, and to notify local health officials if they become aware of a presumptive COVID-19 case or positive test within the workplace.

The three people who testified during the videoconference hearing all made similar requests of the department, proposing measures they said would bolster worker protections.

"We don't know the full impact that COVID has had on workers, largely because the commonwealth unfortunately has failed to collect the most comprehensive data possible, specifically data on occupation, industry and the employers of those who have become ill or died from the virus, making it really even more important that we have strong, comprehensive and enforceable standards," said Chrissy Lynch, the chief of staff for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Lynch said the regulations should include "clear rules" about informing workers of COVID-19 exposure and set standards for how and when exposed or sick workers can return, as well as providing stronger whistleblower protections and anti-retaliation measures for those who raise concerns about the level of safety.

The current regulations, she said, do not protect workers from being fired if they test positive for COVID-19.

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachustts Coalition for Occupational Health and Safety, said the regulations should explicitly prohibit employees from returning to work if they show symptoms or test positive. She said complaints to the labor standards department and to Attorney General Maura Healey's office indicate there are cases where people have been required to work when symptomatic.

Sugerman-Brozan recommended that the rules require employers to provide their workers with necessary personal protective equipment. She also suggested that businesses face a fine of at least $300 per employee, per day, for violations of COVID-19 safety rules that are not corrected in 24 hours after an order to correct.

"That would definitely prompt employers to move more quickly," Sugerman-Brozan said.

Joe Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, said the state should also allocate "adequate resources" to make sure the regulations should be enforced. He said some of his union's members within the Department of Labor Standards are "overwhelmed" with the numbers of complaints they're hearing from the public.

"Both DLS and local boards of health need the additional personnel and funds to expand their capacity to properly inspect and investigate that employers are in full compliance with the law," Dorant said.

The DLS plans a second hearing on the regulations on Oct. 14.



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