Sadly, inaction in the beginning days of the COVID-19 pandemic left many workers misguided, confused and often unprotected in a chaotic work environment. Workers watched their colleagues become furloughed or fired, and it left many too scared to speak up about their own situation.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) was at the forefront of demanding protections for workers. On a recent America’s Work Force Union Podcast, AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council 53 First Executive Vice President MJ Burke discussed recent workplace protections. She also explored the importance of a union presence in the workplace.
COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard
In late June, a federal Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) was finally established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nearly a year and three months after the pandemic uprooted American life.
The ETS is only enforceable in healthcare and healthcare support service workplaces. According to Burke, this is a good thing, as these workers interact with vulnerable patients and are most likely to contract COVID-19. Their workplaces typically consist of hospitals and nursing homes, though they may also visit the homes of potentially ill people.
Burke also said the ETS protects whistleblowers who report when their workplace is not following the standard. The standard contains language defining protections against anti-retaliation and the support of record keeping and reporting.
Finally, Burke said the ETS does not mandate vaccination, but instead provides required time off for those who wish to be vaccinated, as well as additional time for those suffering side effects.
Protecting workers with a union presence
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many complaints regarding workplace conditions, according to Burke. These complaints fell on deaf ears, as in some workplaces, supervisors did not know what to do or were hamstrung by management.
The main complaints pertained to employees forced to provide their own proper personal protective equipment or the use of possibly tainted or defective supplies. Getting the proper personal protective equipment was an uphill battle for many medical workers, but the AFGE and other unions in the medical field managed to get their members everything they needed to safely work.