RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A battle between labor and industry groups played out before a Virginia regulatory board on Tuesday morning as the state’s emergency, coronavirus-driven workplace regulations near their expiration.
Industry groups like the Virginia Manufacturers Association have decried the temporary emergency standards, developed by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Board of Safety and Health Codes last July. They’ve argued the change in rules failed to adhere to state policymaking standards and added undue burdens in an already burdensome pandemic.
Meanwhile, worker groups, including the Virginia chapter of the AFL-CIO, have praised Democratic Governor Ralph Northam for what they see as swift action on a growing and constantly changing threat.
The rules require assessments for workplace exposure to the virus, the categorization of job functions by risk levels, and policies that allow for Covid-19 testing, physical distancing and sanitizing workspaces, among other requirements.
“Keeping Virginians safe at work is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of this virus, it’s key to our economic recovery and it’s the right thing to do,” Northam said last summer when the rules were first announced.
He pointed to the lack of such policies coming from Washington as part of the impetus for developing regulations at the state level.
“In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers,” the governor added.
But the rules are set to expire at the end of January, and Tuesday’s virtual hearing to take in public comments was meant to help inform the board as it considers extending them through the rest of the pandemic, if not permanently.
It was also the first chance stakeholders and the public had to publicly chime in on such an extension.
“We think a permanent, one-size-fits-all is not a good way to regulate in the commonwealth” argued Brett Vassey, CEO of Virginia Manufacturers Association, who was the first to comment Tuesday.
He and a handful of other industry group representatives all shared concerns that initial development of the regulations was fast-tracked in violation of the Virginia Administrative Process Act.
To that end, the Virginia Manufacturers Association filed a lawsuit in September against the labor regulations as well as other Covid-related orders by Northam. That case is still pending in Richmond City Circuit Court.
Among the top concerns for the industry groups, besides the general burden associated with any new regulation, is the lack of data and feedback from the state since the policies were put into effect.
In a phone interview before Tuesday’s hearing, Vassey said his group’s members have been subject to investigations but so far no fines have been levied. Requests for details about investigations and fines from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry were not returned by press time.
Despite the lack of specifics on how the regulations are being enforced, Vassey said the costs of upgrades to avoid fines have been a burden on their own.
“How are you going to have a hospital-grade air quality standard in a million square foot, 50-year-old facility?” he said, arguing some regulations were being followed by less than 10% of Virginia businesses.
Still, he and other industry leaders expressed sympathy over the health crisis and said state regulators should take more input and follow federal agencies in their use of a general-duty clause that has allowed for intervention over workplace health concerns without the development of new regulations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said last month that it has issued over $3.4 million in fines under its general-duty clause, following over 250 inspections.
“Manufacturers are used to regulations, so we’re a little different than other sectors,” Vassey said. “We’ve adapted quickly within the constraints, but the problem is over regulation and there’s a better way to do it.”
Meanwhile, Doris Crouse-Mayes, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, commended Northam for the speedy regulation changes and hoped the board would extend even beyond the pandemic. She argued the rules will help employees and businesses increase consumer confidence as the state begins the complex process of vaccinating the public.
“Customers will feel safe frequenting their favorite businesses,” she said during Tuesday’s hearing. “And workers who have worked through this pandemic thus far will benefit if they know going to work and coming home safely and healthy is not a life-or-death situation.”
The Board of Safety and Health Codes will continue to take public comments through the week before holding a second, and possibly third, meeting in mid-January. They will then vote on the regulations before sending them to Northam, who will review them but lacks the authority to override their decision.
The state legislature could still get involved. Vassey said he hadn’t yet nailed down any elected officials to champion an effort to roll back the regulations, but even if he did find a member to support the traditionally Republican push for limited regulation, it could run into a wall in the form of Democratic majorities in both legislative branches.
Among those legislators is Delegate Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who, as a democratic socialist and candidate in the state’s 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary, has long championed workers’ rights in a state that has historically sidelined them.
In an emailed statement, Carter called the extension of the labor rules a “no-brainer.”
“Considering the fact that the pandemic is reaching record heights and the specter of the new UK coronavirus variant is on the horizon, we need to see more executive response from the governor,” he said ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
A military veteran of the Marine Corps, Carter returned to the U.S. as a technician for medical equipment, giving him a unique perspective on having to maintain a healthy workplace.
“Industries are used to workers getting sick as an externality,” he said in a post-hearing interview. “As a worker, my life is a line-item expenditure to them and they are balking at making bare minimum requirements.”
As for the Democratic wall, he’s fairly confident the new majorities will stand their ground but said the state’s history as “number one for business” could create cracks in that wall.
“How many of the right-wing Democrats are going to say it's okay for businesses to jeopardize people’s lives?” he said.
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