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Trump Administration Does NOT Have to Issue Emergency Rules Regarding Workplace Safety Amid COVID-19, Court Rules

— June 18, 2020

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently ruled the Trump Administration cannot be forced to issue an emergency ruling for employers to protect employees from COVID-19.

As many places of business begin to reopen after spending the last few months shut down, some are wondering just how much protection they’re required to offer their employees. One federal appeals court recently shed some clarity on the matter, though. According to a ruling earlier this month, the Trump administration “does not have to issue an emergency rule requiring employers to protect workers from the coronavirus.” The ruling was unanimous and was decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the three-judge panel, “an emergency rule is not necessary at this time.″

A map of the United States showing COVID infection rates by county.
Cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in the USA by county as of May 30, 2020; areas with no available data are coloured grey. Image by Ythlev, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 (Image only.)

The decision came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by a top labor union against the Occupational Health and Safety Administration “seeking to compel it to issue an emergency temporary standard on the coronavirus.” Filed by the AFL-CIO, the suit stated:

“Tens of thousands of workers have been infected on the job through exposure to infected patients, co-workers, and unscreened members of the public. As the economy reopens and people return to work, person-to-person contact will increase and an already shocking number of infections and deaths among workers will rise.”

The court pushed back against the suit and said “OSHA is authorized to issue an emergency temporary standard or ETS if it determines that employees are exposed to grave danger from a new hazard in the workplace and that an emergency rule is needed to protect them from that danger.” It added that the “decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.” It further stated:

“In light of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time.”

In response to the ruling, officials with the Labor Department said they were pleased with the decision, “which backed its contention that existing rules and regulations are protecting America’s workers and that an emergency temporary standard is not needed.” Loren Sweatt, a top Labor Department official who works closely with OSHA, and Kate O’Scannlain, a lawyer with the department, said, “OSHA will continue to enforce the law and offer guidance to employers and employees to keep America’s workplaces safe.”

However, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president said he was “disappointed that three federal judges did not deem the lives of America’s workers worthy of holding an argument or issuing a full opinion.” When commenting on the recent decision, he added:

“The post-it length response to the union’s lawsuit acknowledges the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic, but repeats the false claim by Big Business that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration already has done what is needed to protect workers…An unprecedented pandemic calls for unprecedented action, and the court’s action today fell woefully short of fulfilling its duty to ensure that the Occupational Safety and Health Act is enforced.”


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