AFT, AFSCME, WSNA, and UNAC/UHCP sue Trump admin for shelving standard that would protect America’s healthcare workers from exposure to infectious diseases


Unions representing 500k+ nurses, health professionals demand Trump’s OSHA stop unconscionable delay and issue workplace protections against COVID-19, influenza, Ebola, and more #

Trump’s OSHA neglects responsibilities as flu season looms and COVID-19 rages, infecting 190k+ and killing 750+ healthcare workers #

San Francisco, CA — Today, the American Feder­a­tion of Teachers (AFT), the American Feder­a­tion of State, County and Munic­ipal Employees (AFSCME), the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion (WSNA), and the United Nurses Associ­a­tion of California/​Union of Health Care Profes­sionals (UNAC/UHCP) sued Labor Secre­tary Eugene Scalia and the Occupa­tional Safety and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) for unlaw­fully delaying rulemaking on an occupa­tional standard to protect health­care workers from infec­tious diseases trans­mitted by contact, droplets, or air — like influenza, COVID-19, and Ebola. In 2017, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tabled work on an Infec­tious Diseases Standard. It has refused to move forward with the standard amid a catastrophic pandemic — and despite the pleas of health­care profes­sionals. The administration’s unrea­son­able delay violates the Admin­is­tra­tive Proce­dure Act and the Occupa­tional Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).

In today’s filing, the unions, repre­sented by Democ­racy Forward, petitioned for a writ of mandamus compelling OSHA to advance rulemaking on an Infec­tious Diseases Standard, which would require health­care employers who run hospi­tals, clinics, school nurse offices, drug treat­ment programs, and similar workplaces to protect their employees from exposure to harmful infec­tious diseases.

In times of national crisis, the government’s job is to protect people — and in the case of protecting workers on the front line of this pandemic, the federal govern­ment has failed,” said Randi Weingarten, Presi­dent of the American Feder­a­tion of Teachers. Doctors, nurses, respi­ra­tory techs, and other health­care profes­sionals have been treating COVID-19 patients for the better part of a year without basic workplace protec­tions, including adequate PPE, robust testing, and, most impor­tantly, an Infec­tious Diseases Standard that would require employers to estab­lish a compre­hen­sive infec­tion control program to protect front­line workers who are facing daily exposure. OSHA has failed to regulate employers, which in turn have failed to protect the people caring for COVID-19 patients. As a result, health­care worker infec­tion rates remain troublingly high. This immoral treat­ment of the health­care heroes carrying us through this crisis must end, and both OSHA and employers must be held account­able to make hospi­tals safe for the people who work there.”

Every day, public service workers in health care and related settings go above and beyond the call of duty, putting themselves and their families in harm’s way to keep their commu­ni­ties safe, healthy, and strong,” said AFSCME Presi­dent Lee Saunders. For their commit­ment to this work, stepping up during a pandemic, and battling our most infec­tious and deadly diseases, they and their patients deserve to know that there are science-based proto­cols and workplace protec­tions in place that keep them as safe as possible on the job. We cannot simply thank our nurses, behav­ioral health workers, EMS workers, correc­tions officers, and other front-line heroes. We need action to ensure their health and safety, so that they can ensure ours.”

From the start, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion abdicated its respon­si­bility to keep health­care workers — and the commu­ni­ties they serve — safe,” said Democ­racy Forward Legal Director Sean Lev. The administration’s unlawful decision to shelve proposed protec­tions for health­care profes­sionals has recklessly exposed them to deadly infec­tious diseases like COVID-19. The decision betrays a dangerous disre­gard for the law and the health and safety of America’s front­line workers.”

Those that provide health­care to the commu­nity should never have to resort to borrowing, hoarding, or rationing PPE to protect workers and patients,” said Denise Duncan, a regis­tered nurse and Presi­dent of UNAC/UHCP. Based on science, standards need to be estab­lished for creating, distrib­uting, and storing PPE. Oversight is neces­sary to protect caregivers from expired or poor quality equip­ment, and health­care workers need to feel safe in the workplace and know that the health­care system will protect them and the public alike. Without an Infec­tious Disease Standard, health­care systems may be left to their own devices and varying practices that leave our workforce unsafe.”

At present, OSHA has no occupa­tional safety and health standard designed to protect against most infec­tious diseases. While the agency’s Blood­borne Pathogens Standard requires employers to take steps to protect health care workers from diseases trans­mitted by blood, like hepatitis and HIV, there is no legally enforce­able standard that requires employers to protect workers from diseases spread by contact, droplets, or air — like COVID-19.

The lack of an Infec­tious Diseases Standard puts millions of health­care profes­sionals — including the more than 150,000 nurses and health profes­sionals repre­sented by AFT and the more than 350,000 repre­sented by AFSCME — at high risk of exposure. Nation­wide, more than 190,000 health­care profes­sionals have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 750 have died, according to the CDC. Even before the pandemic, though, there were 1.7 million health­care-associ­ated infec­tions each year — from viruses like influenza and super­bugs like MRSA — that pose a risk to health care workers.

In one of nine written decla­ra­tions in support of the litiga­tion, AFSCME’s Director of the Depart­ment of Research and Collec­tive Bargaining, Dalia Thornton, explains the impor­tance of enforce­able standards. When we deal with health and safety issues where statutes or regula­tions compel employers to meet a certain standard,” Thornton states, we are usually able to convince employers to comply with the law and take the neces­sary steps to protect our members’ health. …. But when we can only point to non-binding guidance, it is far harder to improve an employer’s practices.”

In another decla­ra­tion, Linda Adye-Whitish, a regis­tered emergency room nurse at a hospital in Pierce County, Washington, describes how the lack of a standard has person­ally affected her:

  • In the early weeks of COVID-19,” Adye-Whitish says, we routinely treated patients without having ready access to masks or gowns and had no supply of N95 masks at all.”
  • Adye-Whitish resorted to … [her] commu­nity message board to get N95 masks donated” when her employer failed to provide surgical-grade masks.
  • But, by the time she was provided a mask that fit, it was too late. She tested positive for COVID-19.
  • More than six months later, Adye-Whitish still has symptoms — including heart palpi­ta­tions, short­ness of breath, brain fog,” and a loss of taste and smell.
  • She still doesn’t have access to a suitable N95 mask.
  • For the first time in my career,” she says, I feel expend­able and I am thinking of leaving the profes­sion I love. My employer is unwilling or unable to follow known and under­stood measures for keeping health­care workers like me safe.”

Before the Trump admin­is­tra­tion put OSHA’s Infec­tious Diseases Standard on the backburner, OSHA was on track to issue the standard. The agency had spent nearly a decade consid­ering the matter after AFT, AFSCME, and affil­i­ated labor unions petitioned for the standard in May 2009. The agency sought infor­ma­tion from stake­holders and experts, conducted stake­holder meetings, created a proposed regula­tory frame­work, and acknowl­edged that “[e]mployees in health care and other high-risk environ­ments face long-standing infec­tious disease hazards.”

Instead of moving forward with an Infec­tious Diseases Standard, OSHA has published tooth­less guidance documents to address the occupa­tional risks posed by the pandemic. OSHA has received over 9,000 COVID-19-related complaints alleging viola­tions of the OSH Act but has issued just a few dozen citations.

The lawsuit was filed on October 29 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Read the as-filed petition for mandamus, the full appendix, and the nine decla­ra­tions from health­care profes­sionals and union leadership.

Democ­racy Forward is a nonprofit legal organi­za­tion that scruti­nizes Execu­tive Branch activity across policy areas, repre­sents clients in litiga­tion to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

The American Feder­a­tion of Teachers is a union of 1.7 million profes­sionals that champions fairness; democ­racy; economic oppor­tu­nity; and high-quality public educa­tion, health­care and public services for our students, their families and our commu­ni­ties. We are committed to advancing these princi­ples through commu­nity engage­ment, organizing, collec­tive bargaining and polit­ical activism, and especially through the work our members do.

AFSCMEs 1.4 million members provide the vital services that make America happen. With members in commu­ni­ties across the nation, serving in hundreds of different occupa­tions — from nurses to correc­tions officers, child care providers to sanita­tion workers — AFSCME advocates for fairness in the workplace, excel­lence in public services and freedom and oppor­tu­nity for all working families.

Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion (WSNA) is the leading voice and advocate for nurses in Washington state, providing repre­sen­ta­tion, educa­tion and resources that allow nurses to reach their full profes­sional poten­tial and focus on caring for patients. WSNA repre­sents more than 17,000 regis­tered nurses for collec­tive bargaining who provide care in hospi­tals, clinics, schools and commu­nity and public health settings across the state. 

United Nurses Associ­a­tions of California/​Union of Health Care Profes­sionals (UNAC/UHCP) repre­sents more than 32,000 regis­tered nurses and other health care profes­sionals, including optometrists; pharma­cists; physical, occupa­tional and speech thera­pists; case managers; nurse midwives; social workers; clinical lab scien­tists; physi­cian assis­tants and nurse practi­tioners. UNAC/UHCP is affil­i­ated with the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and the American Feder­a­tion of State, County and Munic­ipal Employees, AFL-CIO.

Press contacts #

Charisma Troiano
Democ­racy Forward
(202) 701‑1781

Oriana Korin
American Feder­a­tion of Teachers
(202) 374‑6103

Jeff Rogers
(909) 263‑7230