From the moment COVID-19 first appeared in our state, working people have been tasked with the herculean responsibility of maintaining Oregon’s essential services.
In recent weeks, a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in over 64 reported workplace outbreaks and, according to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the daily confirmed case count could rise to 2,300 statewide by Aug. 13. The immediate impact of such an outbreak would have been almost unfathomable just a few months ago.
However, the reality of COVID-19 is that no community, no matter how small or remote, is invulnerable or immune to its devastation. As the ever-present danger of COVID-19 continues to disrupt and destroy our daily lives, we must do everything in our power to prioritize and protect Oregon’s working people.
Since Gov. Kate Brown first declared a state of emergency on March 8, the state’s pandemic response has been enacted through a series of temporary executive orders and to date, additional protections for workers have been scarce. As many of Oregon’s rural counties were permitted to begin phased reopening in May, thousands of workers across Eastern Oregon were mandated by their employers to return to their job sites — places like food-processing plants, prisons and long-term care facilities — where social distancing is nearly impossible and workplace protections are virtually nonexistent.
In the following months, Oregon’s rural counties have seen a startling increase in positive infection rates of COVID-19. Malheur County, which accounts for about 1% of Oregon’s population, reported the state’s highest single-day case count after an outbreak at the Snake River Correctional Institution. In Umatilla County, Lamb Weston’s french fry production facility had an outbreak that resulted in 142 positive cases.
According to the county’s top health official, this was a result of employees returning to work with mild symptoms. In the absence of workplace protections, large jobsite outbreaks will only increase in frequency and severity.
Without a doubt, more must be done to ensure the safety of frontline and essential workers statewide. Thankfully, Oregon OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has both the authority and precedent to do just that. Last month, Virginia led the way in pandemic workplace safety by implementing a state OSHA-enforced infectious disease standard. This new standard requires workplaces to clean and disinfect commonly used areas, implement policies for employees infected with COVID-19 to safely return to work, and ensure that employees observe physical distancing, among other things.
With Virginia as a leading example, Oregon has an opportunity to not just replicate these standards, but improve and expand those protections for Oregon communities. These protections are critical not just for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for any infectious disease outbreak in years to come.
Despite the clear need for increased workplace safety, many of Oregon’s legislators continue to discuss the need for “liability protections” or immunity for employers, at a time when workers need more protections — not less. Sadly, the harsh reality of this pandemic is that working people will continue to suffer until there are strong worksite-driven safety precautions in place.
Returning to “normal” is unachievable until personal protective equipment (PPE) is widely accessible, working people can afford to stay home when they are sick, and worksites are constantly managed and audited for virus safety concerns. When employers fail to prioritize the health and safety of their employees, customers, and communities, they must be held accountable.
The overwhelming truth of the pandemic is that when workers are sick, they cannot safely do their jobs. Lacking guaranteed protections, thousands more will be vulnerable to permanently losing employment. Left without income, they will be forced to navigate stagnant state and federal unemployment systems, where many have already spent months anxiously awaiting assistance.
Without a clear end of the pandemic in sight, it is incumbent upon Oregon OSHA to step up and protect workers with clear, consistent, enforceable standards. Once an infectious disease standard is ensured, Oregon will set a strong precedent for worker protection that will signal Oregon’s values and commitment to workplace and public safety to the rest of the country at a time when working people need it the most.