By Celine McNicholas and Margaret Poydock, Economic Policy Institute
Using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing to take executive action to repeal and suspend federal regulations. This should not be a surprise—one of Trump’s first actions after taking office was to issue an executive order requiring federal agencies to identify at least two existing regulations to “repeal” when proposing a new regulation. Now seizing on the public health crisis and its economic impact as an excuse, the Trump administration is framing this renewed push to deregulate as a necessary policy response to promote economic growth, focusing on repealing and suspending regulations that impact businesses.
Deregulation has long been a central component of the corporate-interest agenda and the Trump administration has certainly obliged. While the coronavirus was not under anyone’s control, President Trump’s failure to establish strong worker protections during his first term, through laws and regulations, has helped create the crisis millions of essential workers now confront every day on the job. The following are examples of how the Trump administration’s corporate-driven agenda has weakened worker protections needed to combat the coronavirus.
President Trump blocked the Workplace Injury and Illness record-keeping rule, which would have clarified an employer’s obligation under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to maintain accurate records of workplace injuries and illnesses. As a result, OSHA does not require employers to keep accurate records that could be used to identify unsafe, potentially life-threatening working conditions.
President Trump blocked the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which would have helped ensure that taxpayer dollars were not awarded to contractors who violate basic labor and employment laws. Without this regulatory safeguard, more than 300,000 workers have been the victims of wage-related labor violations while working under federal contracts in the last decade.
President Trump blocked a rule limiting the circumstances under which individuals filing for unemployment benefits may be subjected to drug testing. As a result, unemployed workers continue to face barriers when seeking unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, including the more than 20 million workers who have filed for UI benefits during this crisis.
Deregulation is often pursued under the guise that regulations are economically burdensome. However, even under the Trump administration, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported that the benefits of regulations outweigh the costs. Furthermore, failing to regulate or delaying worker protection rules risks workers’ health and safety. For example, the Trump administration delayed the implementation of an OSHA rule that limited workers’ exposure to silica dust, which has been linked to lung cancer. By delaying the rule, the Trump administration increased the likelihood of more workers being exposed to silica dust and developing silicosis. Impacted workers and their families are left to bear the costs associated with illness.
Regulations implement policy initiatives. Simply repealing or suspending regulations without considering the policy implications is irresponsible. Using a global pandemic as an excuse to deliver on longstanding corporate priorities to repeal, suspend, and delay the rules that protect workers is shameful. At a time when workers are routinely risking their lives to perform essential services for our nation, they deserve stronger workplace protections, not a loosening of existing standards.
It is true that crises present unique opportunity for the advancement of a policy agenda. This moment could be used to implement policies that help ensure workers’ health and safety, or to instead satisfy longstanding corporate interests. Given its track record, it is unsurprising that the Trump administration is responding to the current public health crisis by looking for ways to deregulate worker protection rules and promote corporate interests, even implementing a liability waiver for employers that would shield them from legal responsibility when workers contract the coronavirus on the job.
This moment does mark an opportunity to reshape a system that has long served corporate interests at the expense of working people. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is choosing once again to pursue a corporate first agenda.