Nursing Unions Sue Biden Administration To Force Permanent OSHA Protections
On December 27th, 2021, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it was officially withdrawing the Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard (Healthcare ETS). Despite the overwhelming number of COVID cases due to the highly contiguous omicron variant and ongoing delta variant now overtaking every part of the country and rising numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths protections for healthcare workers no longer exist.
“OSHA announced today that it is withdrawing the healthcare ETS issued on June 21, 2021, with the exception of the recordkeeping requirements within the healthcare ETS, which remain in place under a separate provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” the agency said in a written statement.
Healthcare ETS Protecting Workers From COVID-19 explained
In June 2021, OSHA adopted a Healthcare ETS protecting workers from COVID-19 in settings where they provide healthcare or healthcare support services. OSHA’s emergency standard required hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities to develop and implement measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to the Healthcare ETS, it also mandated that they provide workers with sufficient protective equipment like N95 respirators, maintain social-distancing protocols, and screen patients before they enter the workplace. Employers were required to follow the rules or receive hefty fines from the federal government.
The reality is - that not much has changed since the start of the pandemic with the exception of vaccinations. In fact, the spread of the coronavirus has only gotten worse and OSHA has repeatedly made statements that healthcare works remain in grave danger due to the ongoing exposure to the virus. Furthermore, all of the reasons that OSHA initially enacted the Healthcare ETS still remain true.
Why Nursing Unions Are Suing
The original Healthcare ETS was able to be withdrawn because according to section6(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) more than six months have passed without adoption of a permanent standard, as required. It is unclear how “hard” OSHA and the federal government worked to find a more permanent solution to the healthcare protections.
The decision to drop the Healthcare ETS without a more permanent solution angered nursing unions throughout the country. Specifically, the National Nurses United (NNU), New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), and Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) along with several other labor unions filed a lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit asked for the federal court to force the Biden administration to adopt a COVID-19 safety standard for health care workers, escalating a rare public fight between the White House and labor allies.
PASNAP President Maureen May stated, “For the past two years, frontline health care workers have willingly sacrificed their own physical and mental health to protect the American public. This decision to pull the rug out from underneath the nation’s health care workers on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 is indefensible and will certainly lead to more unnecessary infections, illnesses, and deaths. We implore our government to stand up to the hospital association lobby and implement the rules and regulations needed to keep our frontline health care workers safe as they continue to care for the public and battle this raging disease.”
- NNU is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses representing over 175,000 nurses
- NYSNA is New York’s largest union and represents more than 42,000 nurses
- PASNP represents over 9,000 registered nurses.
The aforementioned unions took the Biden administration to court Wednesday said OSHA’s failure to implement a permanent safety standard amounts to “an extremely dangerous breach of its duties.”
“OSHA is charged with ensuring that employers create and maintain safe workplaces, and this delay in issuing a permanent standard puts the lives of nurses and other health care workers, patients, and our communities, in jeopardy,” said Bonnie Castillo, president of National Nurses United.
COVID Cases On The Rise
As the number of positive cases grows exponentially over the last several weeks due to the highly contagious omicron variant, healthcare workers are begging for healthcare systems to maintain the precautions set forth from the Healthcare ETS, regardless of its officiality.
While not part of the lawsuit, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals released a statement saying, “VFNHP has serious concerns about the new guidelines and its effect on our members and all who work in healthcare no matter their job. We are hopeful they will revise this policy to protect our frontline staff.”
And the frontline workers need these protections as more and more are testing positive and being required to work while asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic according to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) new quarantine guidelines for healthcare workers.
While the specific number of healthcare workers testing positive is unknown, according to the New York Times, on January 6th there were 611,389 new reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States. This is a 227% increase over the last 14 days with the total reported cases now at 59,236,744.
Reports of new infections are rising steeply almost everywhere in the country. Case rates are highest in Northeastern states, including New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Furthermore, hospitalizations have increased more than 50 percent over the last two weeks with a dramatic rise in pediatric admissions.
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