January 23, 2021
New Orleans Executive orders unraveling the Trump era are raining down from the White House now as President Biden signs one after another. As the headlines indicate, many of them are reversing or halting bad business, diplomacy, and other cornerstones of the former administration. Some of the orders though are filling critical voids where there was not benign neglect, but malign neglect, especially when it comes to workers, and more critically, essential workers like those in healthcare and other frontline positions.
His orders on federal employees and the almost four million Service Contract Act workers are significant of course. He’s insisted that no federal worker be paid less than $15 per hour, and few were, but as importantly he has taken steps to restore their collective bargaining rights that had been stalled and eviscerated over recent years. For federal governmental contractors, he didn’t mandate $15 per hour, but he didn’t need to do so. By directing them to move in that direction, he signaled that the DOL Wage and Hour surveys would never question area wage rates over that level. Section 4-C says that if there is a collective bargaining agreement with a union, then the wage determination set by the DOL for bidding and approving any new contract, shall be set at the negotiated level. The ink won’t be dry on this order before wage proposals and bids will move over $15 for such contractors, and that’s where most of the estimated millions of beneficiaries on this order will be found.
All that is good, but the steps he is taking to order OSHA to finally come up with rules to protect workers on their job sites during the pandemic are huge. In additional instructions, as the New York Times reports,
…Biden will also seek to allow workers to draw unemployment benefits if they quit jobs they fear are unsafe amid the pandemic, by asserting “that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health, and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance,” White House officials said in a fact sheet detailing the orders.
A Local 100 organizer emailed me a sort message to the point: “Wow, this would have crippled our worksites.” Indeed, we filed OSHA complaints that went nowhere on several of them for forcing workers in personal care jobs at homes for the differently abled to have to work even when exposed. Nursing home workers we represented were being forced to work without adequate PPE, sometimes having to share equipment, wash out masks and face shields, and buy their own supplies. Mind my words, these facilities are desperate for workers, so if workers know that they can leave the job when their health is threatened and collect, they can be confident there will still be a similar job waiting for them later.
With these orders, workers, especially those unorganized and represented by unions, will have some real weapons to wield on the job to force employers to finally protect them and the clients.