AFL-CIO: Deregulation, lack of health enforcement worsened coronavirus pandemic
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka | AJ Mast/AP

WASHINGTON—The GOP Trump administration’s massive job safety and health deregulation and its lack of enforcement have worsened the toll of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., the AFL-CIO says.

In a Zoom press conference on Death On The Job, the Federation’s 29th annual report on job safety and health, federation President Richard Trumka blamed GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump for that. He said Trump left “millions vulnerable to infection, and in far too many cases, death.”

The report reaches that conclusion despite no national reporting system for such data. But figures from agencies and a food/environmental non-profit showed at least 381,623 infected health care, food industry and correctional workers alone, and at least 1,180 deaths.

But Death On The Job notes that out of more than 6,000 complaints of firms refusing to protect their workers against the virus, Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) pursued only nine. A video on the AFL-CIO Facebook page, from the investigative unit of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, raised that case total to 30—out of 10,200 complaints.

And OSHA’s acting administrator told Congress earlier this year that out of the first 5,000 such cases, the agency pursued only one, and that was for a paperwork violation.

The Federation also cites Trump’s lack of job safety and health enforcement against the virus as part of its Labor 2020 election campaign. Another Facebook video shows workers talking about the personal impact of the virus: People they knew, worked with and loved, sickening and dying.

“This November Vote Like Your Life Depends On It,” literally, the accompanying caption for that video declares, in boldface type. “A teacher, a nurse, a pharmacy tech”—all union members—“and a Letter Carrier all experienced the trauma of working and living in a country deeply impacted by COVID-19.”

“These essential workers have lived through the mismanagement of the pandemic and the bad decisions that,” at the time of the video, “cost more than 184,000 lives and destroyed the economy. It’s time to hold our legislators accountable. Vote on Nov. 3 or, even better, mail in your ballot and stay safe. Find out more at”

Blaming Trump first and his congressional puppets, specifically Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well, Trumka called the record “unacceptable, shameful,” adding, “It’s time to change course.”

The coronavirus death toll is now higher. And lack of enforcement is not the only way the federal job safety agency failed in protecting workers against the pandemic, which has killed more 210,487 people—more than live in Birmingham, of midday Oct. 6, and sickened 7.478 million. That figure is equivalent to 89.7% of New York City getting sick.

The other top way is OSHA’s refusal to either impose a temporary standard on employers forcing them to protect their workers, or to work on a permanent rule, formally sought for years by National Nurses United, to require bosses to protect workers, and particularly health care workers, against airborne pathogens, such as the virus.

“Policy decisions very much affect what happens on the shop floor,” the Federation’s new Safety and Health Director, Rebecca Reindel, said.

“Working people are heroically battling COVID-19,” Trumka said. “We don’t run and we don‘t hide. But we do demand to be safe at work and employers are not keeping us safe, but that’s nothing new,” he said. It’s also “completely unacceptable.”

Death On The Job, posted at, says 5,250 workers died on the job in 2018, the latest year for which full data are available. It calculates another 95,000 died from occupational diseases. The 5,250 dead worked out to 14 dead workers a day on two of every three days and 15 on the third. The report has state-by-state and occupational details.

The illnesses range from black lung afflicting former coal miners to workers chewed up by machines lacking safeguards and guard rails to rare cancers killing construction workers, Fire Fighters and other first responders exposed to asbestos, particulates, toxic fumes, and poisons from the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers in the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attack.

Another 3.5 million workers were sickened or injured enough to miss time on the job. Again comparing federal figures to workers’ comp claims and hospitalization rates, it calculates the actual figure is three times as much. And that higher number doesn’t count workers whose bosses scared them into not reporting job-caused ills.

“These findings show what happens when our leaders play politics with our lives,” said Trumka, returning to the coronavirus pandemic. “It shows workers have been on a collision course with the crisis we confront today…There were warning signs everywhere.”

“But instead of listening to the experts” or to workers, “Trump and his administration decided to ignore them.” Trump “put working people in harm’s way.” Trumka estimated OSHA fined firms a maximum of $14,000 for each of eight workers who died at companies it cited. But workers face more than the coronavirus that’s a threat, Trumka and the report said.

“OSHA’s meager resources kept declining while other agencies got boosts” under Trump, said Trumka. “Currently, federal OSHA” which covers around half the states, “has only 746 inspectors. That’s the lowest number in the history of the agency,” which just turned 50.

Left unsaid—until the pandemicis that corporate chieftains have waged a long, and under Trump, successful, campaign to hamstring OSHA, cut its inspections, redirect it to “voluntary” compliance, stop its rules in court, and generally render it toothless, all in the name of profits. The weak response to the coronavirus “brought to the forefront the severe weakening and corporate influence on workplace safety protections,” it says.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.