On June 11, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (“AFL-CIO”) petition for a writ of mandamus to compel OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for Infectious Diseases (“ETS”), providing regulations to protect workers against coronavirus exposure in the workplace.
The three-judge panel, consisting of Judges Henderson, Wilkins, and Rao, found that “OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time” given the “unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, see 29 U.S.C. § 654(a).” The statutory section referenced by the court, includes the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“the OSH Act”), which states that each employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). The statute also requires that each employer shall “comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(2). The panel held that “OSHA’s decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.”
Following the Court’s ruling, Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain and OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt stated in a news release: “We are pleased with the decision from the D.C. Circuit, which agreed that OSHA reasonably determined that its existing statutory and regulatory tools are protecting America’s workers and that an emergency temporary standard is not necessary at this time. OSHA will continue to enforce the law and offer guidance to employers and employees to keep America’s workplaces safe.” The ALF-CIO has the right to ask for a rehearing, including en banc, i.e., by all the judges appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit grew out of written requests that the AFL-CIO and more than 20 unions, including unions for healthcare workers, sent to OSHA in early March. They asked OSHA to issue an ETS, rather than have employers rely solely on existing OSHA regulations and new COVID-19 guidance. They requested an ETS that would include a requirement that all employers devise and implement an infection control plan and implement the necessary controls. After the AFL-CIO sent a letter on April 28, 2020, to the Secretary of Labor calling on the agency “to take immediate action to protect the safety and health of workers from exposure to COVID-19 on the job,” the Secretary responded two days later and stated that an ETS was not necessary.
On May 18, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its petition for a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to issue an ETS within 30 days. The petition was based on Section 6(c) of the OSH Act, which states that OSHA “shall provide…for an emergency temporary standard to take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register if [it] determines (A) that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.” 29 U.S.C. § 655(c)(1). The AFL-CIO argued in its court petition that the COVID-19 pandemic is “exactly the type of workplace catastrophe that Congress intended an emergency temporary standard to address.” Given the risks facing essential workers and those returning to work, the AFL-CIO requested an expedited briefing and disposition of the petition and for OSHA to be given 10 days to respond.
On May 29, 2020, OSHA filed its response to the AFL-CIO’s petition, describing its efforts to protect workers during the pandemic through enforcing “existing rules and statutory requirements” and providing “rapid, flexible guidance.” OSHA emphasized the extreme nature of an ETS and how an ETS is rarely used as it “imposes a mandatory standard immediately without public input” and “stays in place…until a permanent rule informed by comment is put in place just six months later.” OSHA argued that 1) the AFL-CIO failed to demonstrate legal standing to bring the petition for a writ of mandamus; 2) an ETS is not “necessary” given OSHA’s existing specific rules, the general duty clause and would otherwise be counterproductive to OSHA’s COVID-19 efforts; and 3) “an ETS would foreclose ongoing policy assessments by the executive branch, Congress, and the states.” The National Association of Home Builders of the United States and other business associations filed amicus curiae briefs in support of OSHA’s position.
On June 2, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its reply brief defending its legal standing to bring the case based on its representation of workers in highly impacted industries and that at least 660 of its members have died as a result of COVID-19. The AFL-CIO continued to stress that an ETS is necessary given the “urgent situation” and “grave danger” that COVID-19 presents. Additionally, the AFL-CIO stated that “Congress required OSHA to issue standards despite inevitable scientific uncertainty,” and an ETS does provide flexibility navigating new scientific information since “an ETS can be issued and modified without notice and comment.” The AFL-CIO clarified that the OSH Act requires the agency to issue an ETS, “not that it requires a static, uniform, or all-encompassing ETS.”
In denying AFL-CIO’s petition, the court did not address OSHA’s standing argument, ruling solely on the substance of AFL-CIO’s petition.
Of note, OSHA regulations do not have direct application to the 22 states who have their own state occupational safety and health agencies and regulations governing private employers. One of those “state plan states” is California. On May 20, 2020, the Labor & Employment Committee of the National Lawyers Guild and Worksafe, a California nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring occupational safety and health rights of vulnerable workers,” filed a petition for a temporary emergency standard before the California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board (“the Board”). The petitioners requested that the Board create two new California safety regulations. First, the petitioners requested “a temporary emergency standard that would provide specific protections to California employees who may have exposure to COVID-19, but are not protected by the Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standards (Sections 5199 and 5199.1).” The petitioners recommended that the Board consider their draft emergency temporary standard for the Board’s consideration of language for an emergency standard. The petitioners’ draft parallels the framework of the Injury and Illness Prevention Program, but adding COVID-19 related provisions, such as identifying an employee representative, establishing various procedures, and analyzing job hazards and implementing preventative measures. Second, the petitioners requested that the Board enter into “a permanent rulemaking effort to protect workers from infectious diseases including novel pathogens,” such as COVID-19. As of June 11, 2020, the Board has not yet issued its decision on the petition.
Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.