Pandemic workplace risks reveal the need for more worker safety protections

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continuing to claim more than 1,500 lives in the United States every day, the need for safe workplaces is clearer than ever before. Yet employees often have very little recourse to hold their employer accountable for putting their health and even their lives at risk.  

Maine legislators will soon have an opportunity to address this through a bill entitled “An Act To Enhance Enforcement of Employment Laws,” introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson. 

COVID-19 Reveals Poor Conditions of Workplace Safety 

The last year has revealed just how vulnerable low-wage workers can be if their employers do not prioritize workplace safety, and how underfunded state agencies can struggle to hold employers accountable for putting their workers at risk.  

There is growing evidence for occupational risk of exposure to COVID-19, especially among the low-paid workers who have the least ability to advocate for themselves against a potential bad employer.  

A national review of COVID-19 cases and deaths through September 2020 found hundreds of thousands of cases among nursing home workers, and workers in the food industry. Additional studies at the state level have found similar results. In CaliforniaMassachusetts, and Washington, COVID-19 deaths among workers were not only concentrated in health care, agriculture, and food processing, but also in retail, restaurants, warehousing, and maintenance.  

There is less available data for cases and deaths among workers in Maine, but it is reasonable to presume workers here face similar risks.  

Workers’ Safety Depends on State Oversight Which is Currently Absent

As they are currently constructed, staffed, and funded, the agencies tasked with ensuring the safety of Maine workers simply cannot exercise adequate oversight. The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and its state partners, received almost 37,000 COVID-19 related complaints between April and September 2020 – yet only investigated 3.6 percent of those cases (none of which was in Maine). 

At the state level, too, Maine’s health and safety infrastructure seems unable to adequately enforce COVID-19 guidelines. To date, enforcement has largely relied on complaints made by members of the public to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. As of December 17, 2020, just 65 of the state’s 50,000 businesses (0.1 percent) had been disciplined for violations of COVID-19 regulations – an implausibly small number. While these cases have sometimes resulted in fines or the suspension of business licenses, none of these cases have included compensation for workers who have been exposed.  

State enforcement agencies remain under-resourced to investigate workplace complaints of all typesOver the past 50 years, the state’s capacity to investigate workplace complaints, including those about worker safety, has been cut in half.  

In 2018, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is tasked with enforcing most of Maine’s labor laws, had one inspector for every 100,000 private-sector workers in the state, and conducted just 1,154 investigations. By contrast, in 1972, the equivalent division had one investigator for every 55,000 privatesector workers and conducted almost 7,500 inspections 

With such limited capacity at state or federal agencies, workers remain vulnerable to abuse. 

Jackson Proposal Offers a Solution

The bill, “An Act To Enhance Enforcement of Employment Laws,” would solve the lack of state capacity and give workers another avenue to seek justice.  

It would allow private attorneys to pursue workers’ rights cases on behalf of the state. Since private attorneys are far more numerous than state investigators, this would effectively increase the capacity to enforce laws without the expense of hiring more state employees. As a result, this would increase accountability for employers and put them on notice that violations of the law will no longer be overlooked.  

A similar law in California, the Private Attorneys-General Act (PAGA) has been successful in empowering workersIn addition to holding employers accountable for safety violations, it has returned millions of dollars lost wages to victims of wage theft, and blocked the ability of corporations to impose unfair arbitration agreements on workers. 

As MECEP showed last year, Maine workers report facing many instances of discrimination and wage theft which currently go unaddressed. The COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of potential problems, especially for workers we have collectively deemed “essential” but who continue to receive low wages and few protections. 

COVID-19 represents a pressing current risk to Maine workers. Yet even without a global pandemic, thousands of Mainers are exposed to workplace hazards every day, from health and safety risks to wage theft by employers. In 2021, legislators must take the opportunity to correct this, and to restore justice to working Mainers whose rights are being violated.