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Federal safety rules worry US retail group but gain support from labor advocates

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Federal safety rules worry US retail group but gain support from labor advocates

The Biden administration is expected to announce new COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines in the coming weeks, and despite a lack of details ahead of the release, the National Retail Federation is expressing concern about the potential cost of new regulations, while labor advocates say it is critical to lay out a uniform standard for protecting front-line employees.

A year into the pandemic, stakeholders on all sides say that new rules should have been issued sooner, ideally last year during the Trump administration.

At this point, the National Retail Federation, which represents a wide range of retailers including Amazon.com Inc. and traditional brick-and-mortar stores, said many of its members have already invested in an array of workplace safety measures, and new rules this late into the pandemic could be expensive and burdensome to implement. Labor advocates, however, stress that protections vary widely by employer and say it is important to make sure basic safety measures are met.

The new guidelines, once released, would mark the first time since 1983 that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued an Emergency Temporary Standard.

A Department of Labor spokesperson did not provide details on when the new guidelines will be released or what they will include, but said in an emailed statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence that OSHA "has been working diligently, as appropriate, to consider what standards may be necessary, and is taking the time to get this right." President Joe Biden previously gave OSHA until March 15 to consider whether to release COVID-19 workplace safety measures under the emergency standard.

"Right now there is no standard, there is just guidance,” said Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official during the Obama administration. "There's no standard that workers have to be six feet apart or they have to be told when a coworker gets COVID or that they have to be provided the ability to wash their hands repeatedly."

The guidelines that OSHA ultimately issues are likely to be familiar, she said. They are expected to hew closely to basic guidelines spelled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends maintaining a distance between people of six feet, increasing outdoor air ventilation, and performing routine cleaning and disinfecting. The emergency rules would likely be in place for about six months, Berkowitz said.

Many companies have already implemented such measures. But those businesses that have not would be forced to do a lot more, Berkowitz said.

The rules could be helpful to some U.S. warehouse employees, who have been working at a frenetic pace to fulfill e-commerce orders as consumers have increasingly shopped online.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of U.S. warehouse workers reached 1.42 million as of January 2021, more than doubling from 647,000 in January 2011. Over the past year alone, Amazon, Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. have collectively added thousands of warehouse and fulfillment workers to meet growing online demand.

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"We still hear from warehouse workers that they don't have time to wash their hands or they don't know if their co-worker got sick," Berkowitz said. "There are warehouses that are doing it right, and there are warehouses that are cutting corners."

Amazon and Walmart spokespeople declined to comment on the potential new regulations but pointed to significant investments in safety measures implemented over the past year, including providing employees with masks, social distancing protocols and enhanced cleaning and sanitation practices.

Ed Egee, the National Retail Federation's vice president of government relations and workforce development, said retailers have already implemented considerable safety protocols, and additional measures would be costly for businesses already weathering substantial hardship due to the pandemic.

"Any regulation that emerges from OSHA at this point is something that we don't really need quite frankly," Egee said. "2020 was the time to get out an ETS."

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It is great that employers have implemented their own safety rules, but COVID-19 remains a health threat in the U.S., especially in high-exposure jobs in warehouses, and many jurisdictions have relieved retailers of any responsibility to provide workers health protections, said Joshua Freeman, distinguished professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

"It's kind of shocking that it has taken a year for [OSHA] to address the occupational, safety and health problems associated with the pandemic, but it seems to be completely appropriate to do so now," Freeman said.