The health and safety of U.S. workers amid the coronavirus pandemic took center stage during President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' virtual meeting Nov. 16 with national labor leaders and high-profile Fortune 500 CEOs — Mary Barra of General Motors; Brian Cornell of Target; Satya Nadella of Microsoft; and Sonia Syngal of Gap Inc. The meeting took place as President Donald Trump pursues legal action in various states, declining to concede the election.
"It was really encouraging, quite frankly, to get people, business and labor together, agreeing on the way forward," Biden said in a press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, following the meeting. "They represent very different perspectives, but I'm convinced that we can all come together around the same table to advance areas of common ground."
The leaders agreed to support a national strategy with "robust public health measures," such as mandatory masking, widely available COVID-19 testing and access to increased treatments and therapeutics, including the "safe, equitable and free distribution of the vaccine," Biden said. "For millions of Americans who've lost hours in wages, or have lost their jobs, we all agreed on our call that we can deliver immediate relief." Affordable health care, childcare, sick leave, family leave, are all areas of focus, Biden said; "Corporate America agreed on this today."
Meanwhile, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) which offers paid leave provisions, is set to expire Dec. 31. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, which expanded FFCRA's paid leave provisions to all employees in the U.S., was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but the U.S. Senate has not approved the bill. Biden urged Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief bill.
"[COVID-19] testing, PPE equipment, and a plan for distribution for a vaccine, when available, are crucial as is the ability for workers, management and government to work together through this pandemic nimbly and efficiently in order to save lives," Rory Gamble, president of United Auto Workers, said in a statement Nov. 16. As COVID-19 infection rates continue to increase, "and workers [are] dying at alarming rates, especially in communities of color, the most important thing we can do on day one is to re-establish the [U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's] (OSHA) mission of protecting workers," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in his remarks. "For four years, OSHA has been AWOL. There's been no full-time director. There are fewer inspectors today than at any point in the agency's history."
The AFL-CIO was among a group of unions that sued OSHA in June demanding a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard, but OSHA was entitled to "considerable deference," the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled. The government agency has not introduced sweeping measures in response to the pandemic. Under a Biden administration, OSHA is expected to enact the emergency temporary standards, and also double the number of investigators.
In the discussion with the corporate leaders, there was a focus on "essential workers, front-line workers, who have risked their own health and the health of their families," Harris said at the press conference.
At the meeting, Target CEO Brian Cornell highlighted "the essential role that retail plays for American consumers," and shared that the company's plans this year "include a $1 billion investment in the health and safety of our team." The company also intends to "ask elected officials to provide companies with clear, consistent guidance around safety, regulations and the future rollout of a coronavirus vaccine," Target told Fox Business in a statement.
The vice president-elect also made note of the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black, Latino and Native American populations in the U.S. in areas ranging from healthcare to unemployment.
Some experts in Biden and Harris' federal agency review teams have experience in addressing racial disparities. Jenny Yang, for example, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and former U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair, is a volunteer on the agency review team for the U.S. Department of Labor. Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at The University of California, Irvine School of Law, is a volunteer on the agency review team for the U.S. Department of Treasury. Baradaran is author of "The Color of Money and How the Other Half Banks"; she has written about banking law, financial inclusion, inequality and the racial wealth gap.
Biden announced members of his White House senior staff Nov. 17. "America faces great challenges, and they bring diverse perspectives and a shared commitment to tackling these challenges and emerging on the other side a stronger, more united nation," he said in a statement.