ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On his first full day as president, Joe Biden made a promise to American workers. He signed an executive order pledging swift action to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 on the job. He ordered the Labor Department to consider issuing mandatory rules around masks and other safety measures. Now, with infections falling fast, a debate has emerged over whether those rules are still needed. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: To understand the issue here, recall what was happening in meatpacking plants a year ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: One hundred and sixteen workers have contracted the virus.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There are more than 1,300 cases in those facilities.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's an assembly line, and you have to have people right next to each other.
HSU: Thousands of workers were getting sick. Under President Trump, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, encouraged employers to take steps to minimize exposure through social distancing, ventilation, partitions, PPE and so on. But the government didn't require any of that, and inspections were way down. Joe Biden seized on this in his presidential campaign. He accused Trump of not caring about workers.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Why don't you enforce the OSHA standards for worker protection during this global pandemic?
HSU: Fast-forward to this spring. President Biden has promised to step up OSHA enforcement and hire more inspectors. But the rules that many expected OSHA to issue months ago have been stuck in a White House review. One reason may be that the bar for issuing emergency rules is high. Workers must be facing a, quote, "grave danger." And now...
MARC FREEDMAN: A lot of employers are pushing their employees to get vaccinated. Clearly, a lot of workplaces have high levels of people being vaccinated. That really undermines any argument OSHA would have for claiming grave danger.
HSU: Marc Freedman is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He says even before the CDC announced that vaccinated people are safe indoors without masks, the pandemic was moving in the right direction. So why impose costly and burdensome regulations on businesses now?
FREEDMAN: The backdrop to this whole issue has really shifted considerably.
HSU: David Michaels, who led OSHA under President Obama, sees this moment differently. The loosening up of restrictions, he says, is exactly why workers need OSHA to step in.
DAVID MICHAELS: Right now, across the country, people have taken off their masks. They're not social distancing. Employers aren't cranking up the ventilation anymore. And that's a terrible mistake. There are so many unvaccinated people who are at risk for this deadly virus.
HSU: Among them, he says, many low-wage workers, many Black and brown workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents over a million workers, including in meatpacking and grocery stores. The union says the need for workplace rules is more urgent than ever.
At the Bellisio frozen foods plant in Jackson, Ohio, masks are still required. Margot McManus, the company's chief people officer, has been waiting on OSHA, hoping for some clarity on what they should do going forward.
MARGOT MCMANUS: We've worked really hard to be safe, and so we're not going to just quickly overnight change it.
HSU: Especially since the vaccination rates at the plant are not where she wants them to be. And that's despite a lot of education and promotion, including bringing vaccines on site.
MCMANUS: So the last time we surveyed, it was about 55%. But, you know, there are a lot of people that never want to be vaccinated.
HSU: David Michaels says for those people, the risks of getting COVID remain very high. Michaels had high hopes for worker safety when Biden took office. Now he wonders if OSHA's rules will ever see the light of day.
MICHAELS: The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be and more controversial it will be because more people will be vaccinated, but that doesn't mean we don't still need it.
HSU: One death, he says, is one death too many. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.