In the midst of a pandemic, national and local labor advocates contend that a critical federal agency is failing to protect workers.

The country’s largest federation of unions brought these concerns into the spotlight earlier this month, when it released a scathing report claiming the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is failing to enforce federal labor laws.

The report notes that OSHA received more than 9,000 employee complaints related to COVID-19 through Oct. 1. The agency has opened investigations into fewer than 200 of these complaints, according to the report. The analysis was conducted by American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, which is made up of more than 50 unions and represents more than 12 million active or retired workers.

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Tom Townsend, who serves as president of Dubuque Federation of Labor, said OSHA was struggling with a lack of resources before the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus, however, has increased worker complaints and made it harder for the agency to keep up.

“They are spread so thin. They’re underfunded and understaffed, and they have been for a long time,” Townsend said. “I don’t believe that they are having a big impact on what goes on in the plants.”

Questions surrounding OSHA’s enforcement capacity come at a time when employees and business leaders alike are attempting to navigate the realities of working during a pandemic.

In Dubuque County, many businesses are seeking guidance from the Safe at Work initiative. Led by Greater Dubuque Development Corp. and Northeast Iowa Community College, the program helps employers share strategies and stay up to date with ever-changing guidelines and regulations.

Wendy Mihm-Herold, NICC vice president of business and community solutions, believes businesses will continue to improve safety measures, even if the prospect of an investigation or penalty from OSHA is unlikely.

“I don’t think businesses are participating (in Safe at Work) because they are afraid of getting fined,” she said. “I believe they are trying to do what’s best for their culture and for their business. They are doing what they can to keep their operation running.”

STEPPING UP

In its October report, the AFL-CIO said OSHA’s recent track record indicates the agency is not capable of enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which promised American workers the right to a safe job. Over the past half-century, this law has saved the lives of 618,000 workers, according to AFL-CIO.

A lack of federal support makes union leaders like Townsend even more important.

In addition to his role with Dubuque Federation of Labor, Townsend is the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 704 and president of Dubuque Building and Construction Trades Council. When union members have concerns about workplace conditions, they often get relayed to Townsend.

The COVID-19 crisis, and the accompanying political turmoil, mean such complaints run the gamut.

“It is all over the board,” Townsend said. “Some members are mad because they have to wear masks, and other members are mad because the other people aren’t wearing them.”

When legitimate concerns are voiced, Townsend works with the union members’ employers in hopes of finding a solution. In today’s climate, Townsend believes, communication between union and business leaders serves as the best — or sometimes only — way to rectify a safety issue.

“It is a hollow threat to say we will call OSHA,” Townsend said.

More often than not, however, an employee with concerns over workforce conditions doesn’t have the option of turning to a union leader.

Over the course of 2020, the COVID-19 complaints made to OSHA have come from a variety of economic sectors, including more than 1,000 complaints from retail workers.

“In the nonunion world, I think the employees have to just do what the boss tells them to do,” Townsend said.

JOINING FORCES

Seven months into the COVID-19 crisis, operating a business under the looming threat of the virus remains complex and confusing.

The collaborative effort between GDDC and NICC, Safe at Work got its start in the spring, when government mandates forced some businesses to shut down and called upon others to keep going.

“It started with the essential businesses,” said Kristin Dietzel, vice president of workforce solutions for GDDC. “At the time, our focus was to make sure those essential businesses would be able to keep their doors open.

Dubuque-based company Hodge was among the essential employers that continued operating throughout the spring, according to Vice President of Human Resources Jordan Fullan. She said the company crafted its own COVID-19-related protocols in the spring but has leaned on resources from Safe at Work in recent months.

“There is so much information — so many guidelines and recommendations out there,” Fullan said. “(Safe at Work) is a great resource for us because it compiles everything in one place.”

Dietzel explained that the initiative operates under a four-pronged framework, helping employers organize their workforce, organize their workspace, monitor their workspace and react appropriately in the event of a positive COVID-19 test.

The advice offered through Safe at Work is based on guidance from Iowa Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As these guidelines continue to change, officials compile the new information, then distribute it through newsletters and a comprehensive online booklet that is updated frequently to reflect the latest information.

Officials also have organized multiple Safe at Work webinars, which have included guest speakers offering comprehensive knowledge in public health, law and other categories.

Mihm-Herold emphasized that these online gatherings also give participating businesses a chance to bounce ideas off one another.

“Businesses want to get together and talk about best practices,” she said. “They want to know what other businesses are doing with social distancing and personal protective equipment, how they are running their shifts and what they do if someone tests positive. It can help to discuss those things.”