Governors’ reopening plan grants corporate wishes by letting employers off the hook

When Governor Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board (RAB) was announced, the biggest red flag was the lack of representation of labor or community organizations and overrepresentation of corporate executives, including corporations with worrisome track records. So it’s no surprise that Baker’s reopening plan advances corporate interests without commonsense requirements that would keep workers and customers safe from the virus. In other words, private profit, public risk.  

Baker’s plan was released Monday. In a report card on the reopening plan, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH)  gave Baker a grade of F in “Enforcement of Health and Safety Standards,” writing:

The Plan includes no planned or targeted inspections of workplaces and leaves workers (and customers) to notify authorities if there are unsafe conditions. Enforcement of the standards is given to local Boards of Health and the Department of Labor Standards (DLS).…The actual penalties to employers who don’t follow standards are minimal and are only issued after verbal and written “redirection” is ignored. In some cases, this plan may actually weaken existing worker health and safety protections.… The guidance also states that cities and towns should not adopt stricter-than-the-Commonwealth-of-Massachusetts rules or ordinances that are intended to address the risks of COVID-19. This again provides weaker protections than existed prior to this reopening plan, when, for example, the City of New Bedford issued more stringent protections for their manufacturing workers.

The Boston Business Journal agreed, reporting the State is taking a “more lenient approach to Covid-19 fines, penalties.” According to the BBJ, before the changes were announced Monday, “authorities were supposed to issue a cease-and-desist order on the first violation. Subsequent violations could result in a $300 fine or even arrest.” Baker’s new corporate-driven plan means the first violation reported will result in only a verbal warning, and the second a written warning.  Only the third, fourth and fifth violations can be fined $300. A formal cease-and-desist order won’t be used until six violations have been reported.  

This slap-on-the-wrist system shields employers who don’t take safety seriously. Worse, it passes the burden onto workers and customers to report violations but provides no clear information or directions on how to do so.  According to MassCOSH, 

Nowhere, in any of the documents released [on May 18], is there a clear number for workers to call in order to report unsafe conditions or file a complaint. Workers have no clearer guidance on where to get help for dangerous conditions with the release of these standards than they did before.

What if a worker were to figure out where to report a violation? Baker’s plan does not protect from retaliation, because it includes no whistleblower protections. Those of us returning to work face new and scary health risks, and for many they come on top of lost income and economic precarity. If we find our workplace isn’t safe, we should be able to report it without fear of being fired or otherwise punished.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is happy with the hands-off aspects of Baker’s reopening plan, saying “the plan relies heavily on guidance rather than regulation, which businesses prefer, and will allow employers some flexibility to manage the return to work in the way that best suits their business and workforce.” It’s little surprise the plan meets with the Chamber’s approval.  Three GBCC member corporations were represented on the RAB, including two—Fidelity Investments and Rapid7—with spots on the Chamber’s Executive Committee.

Unfortunately, the plan is reckless and dangerous for us all.  Healthcare professionals and public health experts, including hundreds who signed a letter from the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, are worried that the science calls for a longer stay at home period and a more careful return to work.  By ignoring health specialists, excluding frontline workers, and pandering to corporations, Baker’s reopening plan may start profits flowing again for shareholders but it will almost certainly worsen the toll of the pandemic for the rest of us.

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