Virginia adopts nation’s first coronavirus workplace safety rules after labor groups decry federal inaction

The state of Virginia adopted the first set of coronavirus-related workplace safety mandates in the country after a board approved the emergency regulation Wednesday — a move the state took after months of inaction from a federal agency tasked with nationwide enforcement.
The state’s safety and health codes board voted 9-2 to adopt what is called an “emergency temporary standard,” which will require businesses to implement safety measures to protect people from being infected with the coronavirus at work. Companies could face financial penalties of up to $130,000 if they are found to have violated the policies.
The policies prohibit workers suspected of having the coronavirus from showing up to work, require companies to notify workers of possible exposure to infected co-workers within 24 hours, and include mandates about physical distancing, protective gear, sanitation, disinfecting and hand-washing.
It also prohibits employers from retaliating or discriminating against workers who air concerns about infection risks on the job with each other, government agencies, traditional news outlets, or on social media. Masks are already required in the state under a mandate from Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
The regulation was drafted by the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, under direction from Northam in late May. With cases surging across the country, it has taken on a newfound urgency. Per state rules, it will go into effect after it is published in a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, and will last for at least six months.
State officials said they were pushed to act because of the lack of enforcement from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal body charged with upholding workplace safety.
OSHA has received thousands of complaints from workers who say their employers have failed to take basic steps to mitigate infection risks in industries from health care to construction and beyond. Loren Sweatt, the Trump appointee who leads the agency, disclosed during congressional testimony in May that OSHA had issued a citation for only one of the complaints.
Former federal health officials have alleged that the agency’s lack of enforcement amounts to a neglect of its fundamental duties. The federal body has issued guidance that amounts to recommendations for employers to follow but do not carry the threat of enforcement or penalties. It has declined to create an emergency temporary standard despite an increasingly loud chorus of workers, activists and former officials who say it should do so.
“Employers could — and did — ignore them at will, therefore endangering their workers and the public at large,” said a statement from a coalition of civil rights, legal and worker groups that supported the Virginia measure. “But no more. By virtue of these new standards, workers will now benefit from a host of key protections that employers must implement.”
OSHA says its existing guidelines are sufficient to protect workers, responding to an inquiry by saying that it believes it is holding employers responsible for providing hazard-free workplaces.
Virginia’s new regulation was hailed by a wide group of worker advocates, who hope that the regulation serves as a blueprint for other states.
Oregon expects to have a similar draft of rules available by the end of the month, with hopes to implement it in September.
“The virus continues to pose a grave danger to working people and this strong, enforceable standard requires state employers to improve working conditions through clear, science-based measures, preventing further outbreaks in our communities,” said a statement from Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, which unsuccessfully sued OSHA to better enforce safety measures in May. “Virginia had to step in where the Trump administration has failed woefully to protect workers who are risking our lives and our livelihoods during this pandemic.”
The regulations drew sharp opposition from many businesses and industry groups, which said the new regulations were unnecessary in the face of the existing guidelines, raised the cost of business during an already difficult financial period and expressed concern that they could discourage businesses from relocating to the state. The White House and many congressional Republicans are pushing for a new law that would make it harder for workers to sue their employers if they become sick, something Democrats have raised objections to.
The poultry industry in Virginia, which has seen large coronavirus outbreaks among workers, vociferously opposed the new guidelines. Tina Hoover, who works for a poultry industry group, was one of the two members of the state health and safety board to vote against it. Courtney M. Malveaux, a corporate lawyer on the board, argued unsuccessfully against amending the provision that protects workers from discrimination should they raise safety issues on social media accounts or with news reporters.
“With this vote, Virginia’s repeated ranking as a top state for business has evaporated, we won’t be able to compete with other states, and our economic recovery will be put in low gear,” Nicole Riley, the Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement.
Labor advocates have said this is one of the reasons it’s important to have a federal standard and not just a patchwork of statewide ones, which could encourage a race to the bottom by states hoping to attract businesses at the expense of workers' health and safety.

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