WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats and the Trump administration are in an intensifying dispute over workplace safety as businesses begin to re-open in North Carolina and across the country.
Democrats and labor groups have pushed the federal government to set new emergency regulations specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But so far, in North Carolina, there is only state and federal guidance — no enforceable regulations.
North Carolina entered “phase two” of its reopening plan over the weekend, with more businesses opening and people being allowed to move more freely.
Meanwhile, the state’s lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 gradually increased. North Carolina had a total of 23,964 cases  as of Monday, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services. The state has reported a 60% increase  in positive tests over the past two weeks, according to data analysis from COVID Exit Strategy.
North Carolina has experienced several COVID-19 outbreaks  at meat and chicken processing plants, including at Butterball in Duplin County, Tyson Foods in Wilkesboro, and Smithfield in Lumberton.
The Labor Department has issued guidance for workers and employers in various sectors, outlining standard precautions workplaces should take, like keeping distance between workers. But the guidance is largely voluntary, and so far the Trump administration has resisted calls for new regulations. President Donald Trump also signed an executive order that declared meat and poultry plants part of the critical infrastructure.
Labor advocates say the federal government is moving in the wrong direction; workers are being compelled to go to work to keep their jobs, but they do not have enforceable protections to feel safe doing so.
“It is really critical to issue that emergency standard and do everything they can to ensure workers are safe when they go back to work, as more and more NC businesses are reopening,” said MaryBe McMillan, president of the NC State AFL-CIO, which represents about 100,000 workers.
The national AFL-CIO sued the Labor Department on May 18 in an attempt to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue mandatory rules.
“It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, a leader on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, has tried to pressure the Labor Department to issue an enforceable workplace safety standard. Adams and the committee’s chairman, Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, sent letters to the Labor Department as far back as January  and March  asking for stricter standards.
“OSHA is the only agency in the federal government authorized to enforce safe working conditions for the nation’s workers,” Adams and Scott wrote in their plea for greater protections.
Scott has also made repeated attempts to force the federal government to issue new rules through legislation, including the language in four different proposals this spring.
Adams co-sponsored legislation  with him that would expand protections to more industries and put whistleblower protections in place. She wants the administration to put forward an “emergency temporary standard” that would cover all workers and require workplaces to implement infectious disease exposure control plans.
House Democrats included language in their most recent coronavirus aid package  that would require the Labor Department to issue emergency standards. The package cleared the House 208-199 in a vote May 15. But with little Republican support, it’s not expected to gain traction in the Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) highlighted the bill’s OSHA requirements in a recent message to her Democratic colleagues. “We cannot accept leaving workers in harm’s way, forcing them to sacrifice their health and that of their families, while potentially risking further outbreaks of this pandemic that will prolong this crisis,” Pelosi said.
From Feb. 1 to May 20, OSHA received 4,205 COVID-related complaints, and opened 345 inspections, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson. No citations have been issued. In North Carolina, the state labor oversight agency has some open cases and has not issued any COVID-19 citations, according to a spokeswoman from the NC Department of Labor.
Worker advocates say the relatively small number of inspections and citations highlights the problem for employees returning to work.
In response to the mounting pressure, OSHA issued new enforcement guidance  this month. Agency officials said they would increase in-person inspections at all types of workplaces and include coronavirus as a “recordable” illness.
Employers are responsible for recording confirmed cases of work-related coronavirus to create a registry. Reporting the illness does not necessarily mean the employer did anything wrong. And the recommendations for worker safety remain recommendations — not requirements.
‘Justify their inaction’
The standoff on worker protections, brewing for weeks, will soon heat up on Capitol Hill.
Adams will have a chance to grill Trump administration officials from OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at a hearing scheduled for Thursday in the House Education and Labor Workplace Protection Subcommittee. Adams is chairwoman for the panel.
Adams plans to ask the administration witnesses to “justify their inaction” amid reports of rising COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants, according to her spokesman, Sam Spencer.
“Rep. Adams will ask administration witnesses their rationale for not issuing a mandatory standard when millions of workers are heading back to work, afraid for their well-being and the well-being of their families,” Spencer said. “She will also attempt to assess whether the new outbreaks of COVID-19 in some of our recently-reopened industries has changed their calculus.”
The hearing was originally scheduled for May 20, but Democratic committee leadership announced the day prior that they would postpone it. Democratic aides said they chose to delay the hearing because the administration witnesses had not been responsive to their requests for information and scheduling.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the top-ranking Republican on the Education and Labor committee, criticized Democrats for delaying the hearing and conducting committee business “from the comfort of their own homes.”
“Our Republican members were prepared and eager to return to work to hear from senior administration officials about ongoing efforts to help ensure workers’ safety,” Foxx said in a statement. “It is disappointing that Committee Democrats refused to take yes for an answer.”