Skip to main content

AFSCME members are fighting to preserve COVID safety standards

By Namita Waghray ·

RICHMOND, Va. – AFSCME members in Virginia are fighting to preserve the COVID safety standards they helped establish after the Safety and Health Codes Board voted to recommend repealing them.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin called on officials to review the standards in hopes of repealing them.

On Feb. 16, District Council 20 Executive Director Robert Hollingsworth testified before the board on behalf of AFSCME public service workers who live and work in Virginia. He asked the board to retain life-saving COVID safety standards.

The board enacted first-in-the-nation temporary safety standards, which former Gov. Ralph Northam made permanent last year. Included in the regulations were increased personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, social distancing measures and protections for workers against employer retaliation if the standards go unfulfilled.

“Public employees provide the vital services that our communities depend on, and that commands respect. Repealing the COVID-19 standards that protect workers – particularly the critical provision that bars the firing of and discrimination against any worker seeking to protect themselves against the virus – sends the wrong message to workers and employers in Virginia,” Hollingsworth said.

The board, which establishes and enforces the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) regulations and standards, must provide 30 days of open public comment before it makes the repeal final. AFSCME Virginia members plan to use the 30 days to convince the board of the error of their decision.

Priscilla Brown, a sanitation worker in Norfolk, remembers when her co-workers were dying from COVID.

“As a sanitation worker for the city of Norfolk, it was heartbreaking to learn when someone on our team lost their life to COVID. The safety standards and increased PPE were a godsend and it finally felt like someone was looking out for us. It is too soon and dangerous to repeal these safety standards. It certainly makes me feel like my life as a public employee means little to the (board),” she said. “We deserve safe workplaces and standards that protect us. The pandemic isn't over, and the threat has not passed.”

The standards were crucial in protecting workers from the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus. Worksites are classified as having high, medium and low exposure risk. Employers must create workplace infection protection programs and train workers on how to comply. In addition, the standards set mandates for on-the-job social distancing, cleaning and the wearing of face masks.

Union members also plan to take the fight to protect the standards directly to their local governments. Under collective bargaining agreements, employees can negotiate safety regulations and standards. In Arlington County and the city of Alexandria, employees are organizing a union election.

“This is exactly why public employees need a collective bargaining agreement,” said Harley White, a traffic and signs technician for the city of Alexandria. “We deserve a real voice around workplace safety, it shouldn’t be decided by a group of people in Richmond.”

Related Posts