Covid-19 Safety Fight Heats Up Between Biden Administration and States – The Wall Street Journal

The Labor Department is moving to strip three Republican-led states of workplace safety oversight, saying they have failed to adopt more-rigorous Covid-19 safety standards. It is the latest development in a fight between the Biden administration and some states over federal coronavirus rules.

Officials at the Labor Department said Tuesday that it is starting the process of revoking state-level oversight of workforce-safety programs in Utah, Arizona and South Carolina. The federal government said it began taking steps after the three states didn’t adopt, at minimum, the federal Covid-19 safety plans for healthcare workers, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, released in June.

The plans, which were issued under a federal rule-making process known as an emergency temporary standard, included requirements on masking, social distancing and paid time off for Covid-19 vaccinations.

“The longer these states refuse to adopt an emergency temporary standard for healthcare workers, the longer they’re needlessly putting thousands of workers at risk of the spread of the coronavirus,” Jim Frederick, acting assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA, said Tuesday.

The Labor Department’s move marks the latest in a series of disputes between the federal government and some states over handling Covid-19. Those include disagreements over a forthcoming federal mandate requiring vaccines or weekly testing for workers at private employers with 100 or more employees.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said the state planned a legal challenge of the Labor Department’s decision to revoke its OSHA authority. “With no state regulators in the way, the federal Labor Department will be free to penalize employers who do not comply with President Biden’s unconstitutional vaccine mandate,” he said.

South Carolina was among 24 Republican-led states whose attorneys general in September said in a letter to Mr. Biden that they would seek legal action if the administration didn’t drop its vaccine plan for private employers.

Trevor Laky, a spokesman for the Industrial Commission of Arizona, under which the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is housed, said the state had been working in good faith with the Labor Department to implement the standard. Mr. Laky said the commission had recently begun the rule-making process to implement the standard, a process that includes gathering public input.

“It seems like federal OSHA is trying to stop us from getting public input on this emergency temporary standard,” Mr. Laky said.

Mr. Laky said the Labor Department also took two months over the summer to notify Arizona that initial plans the state submitted for implementing the standard weren’t sufficient.

Representatives for Utah didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The federal government and other states have been at odds over vaccine rules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, recently issued an executive order prohibiting any private entity from requiring its employees or customers to get vaccinated. Mr. Abbott’s directive came during the Biden administration’s rollout of vaccine requirements for private-sector workers, federal workers and government contractors. The rules for private-sector employers are expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, Julie Su, deputy secretary of Labor, has said.

The state-federal conflicts have complicated decisions for many business leaders. Some large employers based in Texas, such as Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Group Inc., have said they wouldn’t follow Mr. Abbott’s order. The airlines, which are federal contractors, said they must abide by the Biden administration’s order.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, said the Labor Department’s action regarding Arizona, Utah and South Carolina is completely political.

“As the Biden administration eyes a national vaccine and testing mandate, it needs to take a hard look inward and determine whether it wants to continue down this legally dubious path,” Ms. Foxx added.

Twenty-two states run their own occupational-safety programs that cover private-sector and state and local government workers. Utah, Arizona and South Carolina were the only three of such states that didn’t adopt any portion of OSHA’s healthcare emergency standard, the federal government said. Workplace-safety agencies in every state are required to adopt the federal standard as their own minimum requirements.

OSHA sent letters Tuesday to Utah, Arizona and South Carolina informing the states that the federal agency was considering revoking the states’ abilities to run their own programs. As a next step, OSHA will publish a separate notice on the Federal Register announcing a proposal to revoke the three states’ programs and provide a 35-day comment period, the federal government said.

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