The number of essential workers filing Covid-19-related complaints to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has dropped steeply in recent months. In May, the number of new Covid-19 complaints by essential workers fell 85% compared to the same month last year.
When the pandemic first hit the US, office workers were able to just stay home. But many of those working in what OSHA has defined as “essential industries” such as healthcare, retail trade, grocery stores, construction, general warehousing and storage, restaurants, and automotive repair were at greater risk.
Complaints were highest at the start of the pandemic as employers had few workplace protections against the spread of the coronavirus, says David Levine, a professor at Berkeley Haas, who has studied OSHA data. While employers have made some changes from moving tables apart at a cafeteria to putting screens up in a supermarket, workers have expressed their discontent with safety protocols.
Covid-19-related federal complaints were highest in healthcare, trade retail, and restaurants (and other eating places) since OSHA began tracking such complaints last April.
Common Covid-19-related complaints include employers not following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, employers not developing or implementing infectious disease plans, and suspected exposure at work, according to OSHA.
The recent drop comes as more Americans are getting vaccinated. More than 143 million Americans—43.1% of the total US population—are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Essential workers face a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 and are more likely to die from it. But essential workers’ fear goes beyond just catching or spreading the virus. “Many of them being low-paid and to be out of work for extended periods of time, that can be a financial hardship for them,” says Pia Markkanen, a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell’s department of public health.
Hoping to address this problem, the Biden administration in January called for the US Department of Labor to clarify guidelines, so that workers who refuse to go into unsafe workplaces were more likely to be granted unemployment benefits.
But fear of getting the virus is likely keeping people out of the workforce. In mid-May, 3.8 million adults reported they were not working due to concerns over contracting or spreading coronavirus, according to a US Census survey. The large number could help explain why some companies say they can’t find workers. These safety concerns could act as a drag on US economic activity until the virus is fully under control, says Erica Groshen, a labor economist at Cornell University. “While that might not be sufficient for full and energetic rebound,” she says, “it is necessary.”