With New Norms, Unions Should Bargain Over Work Closures and Respirators

Asher TobinIn The News, Press Release



Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld

By: David Fujimoto and Caren Sencer

There is a collective, but muted, sigh of relief as the deadliest wildfire in California history is finally contained. But as the last two years have shown, any relief will only be temporary as the California fire season has expanded. In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire, the Tubbs and Atlas Fires in 2017, and the countless other fires that have roared through California in recent years, federal, state, and local officials are scrambling to determine how to minimize the risk of fires and reduce the harm caused by them. This includes not only addressing fires and smoke, but also increased flooding during the rainy season due to loss of vegetation and changes to the soil caused by fires. When it comes to reducing the impact of poor air quality, job closures, and flooding on workers, Unions can and must play a vital role.

For two weeks in November, officials recommended staying indoors and minimizing physical exertion. This was not possible for construction workers, warehouse workers, police officers, truck drivers, agricultural workers, and others who work outdoors. Those with asthma, heart conditions, and older workers, were especially at risk for developing health problems from smoke. Even healthy adults developed respiratory symptoms from the smoke. For the foreseeable future, at least, we can expect more fires and more poor air quality that will expose workers to health risks. We can also expect increased flooding and mudslides during the rainy season.

Now is the time for Unions’ bargaining demands to address the risks presented by frequent fires and smoke exposure. Proposals will vary depending on geographic location, nature of the work, effectiveness of air conditioning and insulation of warehouses and factories, frequency of time spent outdoors, and more. Proposals can include when to close operations due to heavy smoke, employer-provided air respirators, the type of air respirators, pay for when operations close because of fire danger or excessive smoke, job-protected leave to address childcare issues caused by school closures or to respond to the loss of a home due to fire or flooding, continuation of benefits when closures last for an extended period, anti-retaliation provisions, and more.

While OSHA regulations require air respirators for certain industries under certain conditions, there are simply not enough investigators to enforce these regulations when smoke blankets an entire region, as we saw in November. A more proactive approach would see Unions gain contractual protections and ensure compliance. For example, Unions can bargain for employers to have a full supply of N-95 respirators at a given work location at any given time. This would ensure that workers have respirators available when needed.

For information on respirators click here.