We need a strong, permanent standard to protect workers
September 25, 2020
Department of Labor and Industry
Commonwealth of Virginia
Main Street Centre
600 East Main Street, Suite 207
Richmond, Virginia 23219
On behalf of the nearly 10,000 members of the UFCW Local 400 in Virginia, who have been risking their lives working on the front lines of the pandemic, we urge the Virginia Safety and Health Standards Board to promulgate a strong permanent standard which will protect workers from contracting COVID-19.
We strongly support the Virginia Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that has been passed and enacted. It has been effective and is protecting workers from infection. All of our employers in the Commonwealth have taken steps to comply with the standard, including providing training, which has created safer workplaces. However, the ETS is set to end on January 27, 2021, and we know the threat of COVID-19 will continue. Another wave of infections is anticipated, and without permanent protections, workers will continue to be put at risk.
UFCW Local 400 represents 30,000 workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, poultry and food processing, and in the seafood industry across the mid-Atlantic. To date, over 631 members of the Union have tested positive for COVID-19, including over 336 in Virginia, and 7 members have died as a result of the virus. We implore you keep these members safe going forward by passing a strong permanent standard.
The following steps have been taken by UFCW employers in Virginia, since the ETS went into effect:
- Classified jobs by risk category;
- Directed employees to monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19;
- Implemented, in consultation with UFCW Local 400, enhanced sick leave benefits and flexible attendance policies;
- Established a system to notify employees and their union within 24 hours of their exposure to someone known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2;
- Established return-to-work policies for employees known or suspected to be infected with SARS-CoV-2;
- Increased physical distancing by decreasing customer shopping limits, staggering shifts, engineering controls (e.g. closing every other check stand, moving time clocks away from congested areas, one-way aisles at grocery stores, Plexiglas shields where physical distancing is more difficult);
- Used signage and verbal announcements to promote physical distancing;
- Controlled access to and expanded employee breakrooms;
- Provided hand washing facilities and hand sanitizer, allowed more frequent breaks for hand washing;
- Provided masks and hand sanitizer to workers utilizing shared vans to get to work;
- Mandated mask wearing, provided employees with masks free of charge;
- Increased the frequency of common space cleaning and sanitizing;
- Implemented curbside pickup and home delivery options;
- Implemented an infectious disease preparedness and response plan;
- Identified the person responsible for administering the infectious disease preparedness and response plan;
- Provided training on the hazards and characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 disease, the requirements of the emergency standard, risk factors for employees with underlying health conditions, safe and healthy work practices, PPE- best practices and limitations, and the anti-discrimination provisions of the standard; and
- Implemented or aligned policies and/or contractual provisions protecting employees who exercise rights under the emergency standard from discrimination.
It is important to note that not all of our employers proactively implemented these measures, and there have been times when employers were lax in enforcement. The ETS also provides our union with important enforcement mechanisms as well.
We are in full support of a strong, permanent standard and recommend the following elements from the temporary standard be retained in the permanent standard:
- The permanent standard should be based on scientific information and long-standing occupational health and safety practices.
- The permanent standard should clearly articulate that SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne hazard, the protections laid out in the standard are important for controlling airborne hazards and the ventilation requirements are in line with industry standards (ASHRAE).
- The permanent standard should be a programmatic standard which means each employer is required to implement a program tailored to their workplace using scientific-based and long-standing workplace control practices.
- The permanent standard should include return to work requirements that align with current science.
- The permanent standard should include clearly defined respiratory protection and what is required for workers who are deemed at risk.
- The permanent standard should include training for all workers, risk assessment of the workplace, and infection control plans in the workplace.
- The permanent standard should clearly define and require face coverings.
We recommend the following elements be removed or strengthened to ensure that the standard fulling protects all workers.
- The permanent standard should not include the CDC exception because it will make the standard easier to implement and enforce, and less prone to inconsistencies.
- The permanent standard should emphasize ventilation combined with social distancing. Scientific research has found that the virus can travel as an aerosol, further than 6 feet in an indoor space, therefore the six-foot rule for social distance alone may not be enough to reduce spread of the virus.
- The permanent standard should include language on medical removal for known infections, exposures, or when recommended by a medical or public health professional, with removal protections. The employer must maintain the employee's base earnings, seniority, and other rights and benefits that existed at the time of removal until cleared for return to work.
- The permanent standard should strengthen the involvement of workers and labor representatives in the plan. VOSH should ensure their educational material and enforcement efforts are clear that this must be done.
We strongly believe that a permanent standard simplifies things for employers, workers, and their unions. A permanent standard issued by Virginia OSHA will facilitate all parties working together to achieve the goal of protecting workers from this deadly illness.
Mark P. Federici
International Vice President