AFSCME members fight to preserve COVID safety standards

RICHMOND, Va. — AFSCME members in Virginia are fighting to preserve the COVID safety standards they helped establish after the Safety and Health Codes Council voted to recommend their repeal.

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

February 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 council to keep COVID safety standards that save lives.

The council enacted nation’s first temporary safety standards, which former Governor Ralph Northam made permanent last year. The regulations included increased requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing measures and protections for workers against employer retaliation if standards are not met.

“Public employees provide the vital services that our communities depend on and command respect. The repeal of COVID-19 standards that protect workers – especially the key provision that prohibits dismissal and discrimination against any worker seeking to protect themselves from the virus – sends the wrong message to workers and employers alike. Virginia,” Hollingsworth said.

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

Priscilla Brown, a health worker in Norfolk, remembers when her colleagues were dying of COVID.

“As a health worker for the City of Norfolk, it was heartbreaking to hear that a member of our team lost their life to COVID. Safety standards and increased PPE was a godsend and it finally felt like someone was watching over us. It is too early and dangerous to repeal these safety standards. It certainly makes me feel like my life as a civil servant means little to the (council),” she said. “We deserve safe workplaces and standards that protect us. The pandemic is not over and the threat has not passed.

The standards were crucial to protect workers from the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus. Worksites are categorized as having high, medium and low risk of exposure. Employers should create workplace infection protection programs and train workers on how to comply. Additionally, the standards set mandates for social distancing at work, cleaning, and wearing face masks.

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

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

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