President Donald Trump returned to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center on Monday night and proudly removed his mask for the cameras while presumably still contagious with a virus that’s killed more than 210,000 Americans.
His flouting of coronavirus precautions wasn’t just reckless and asinine ― it may have been a violation of his own government’s workplace safety laws.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the federal agency tasked with keeping workers safe on the job, and its regulations primarily apply to private-sector employers. But OSHA also has jurisdiction over the executive branch due to a 1980 executive order.
White House employees who fear that Trump and his advisers have put them in danger ― and apparently there are plenty ― could file OSHA complaints against the president. OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, is obligated to look into such allegations and even perform an inspection if the complaint meets certain criteria.
The agency couldn’t levy fines against the White House, but it could issue citations if it found Trump ran afoul of safety laws.
A strong case can be made that he did. Trump not only dragged Secret Service members along for a joyride to greet supporters outside Walter Reed on Sunday, upon his discharge he then showed up at his workplace when he should still be in quarantine and removed his face covering while on White House grounds.
On Sept. 26, Trump hosted an unnecessary Rose Garden ceremony to honor his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Attendees mingled without masks, including part of the time indoors. The event preceded not only Trump’s illness, but positive coronavirus test results among his inner circle as well as those on the periphery, like White House staff and journalists.
OSHA has not issued any coronavirus-specific regulations and has gone remarkably easy on employers during the pandemic. But bosses must still abide by what’s known as the general duty clause, and provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” That stipulation applies explicitly to federal workplaces.
Trump’s COVID-19 infection is a recognized hazard that can cause death or serious physical harm. Given that, no worker would expect their supervisor to show up at work while still battling the disease and walk around the office without a mask, as well as telling them, as the president has, “don’t be afraid of [COVID] … You’re going to beat it.”
OSHA has only issued a handful of fines related to coronavirus, but some of their most notable cases so far were built upon the general duty clause. The agency fined a Smithfield meatpacking plant in South Dakota just $13,494 and a JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado just $15,615 for violating that clause. Four workers had died at the Smithfield facility and eight at the JBS facility.
As HuffPost recently reported, OSHA has not used many of its available tools to protect workers during the pandemic. It has done relatively few inspections due to worker complaints, issued only a few, small fines, and no new regulations have been put on the books. Workplace safety experts say the agency has pretty much failed the biggest test in its 50-year history.
David Michaels, who ran OSHA during the Obama presidency, told HuffPost in an email that executive branch offices not only have to follow the agency’s rules but also must have their own health-and-safety programs in place ― something not required of employers in the private sector. Career executive branch employees could file complaints, Michaels said ― but they should not expect to be protected by OSHA’s notoriously weak whistleblower provisions if they do.
Given the retributive nature of the Trump administration, any worker who wants to call in OSHA should be concerned about retaliation. Workers can file complaints anonymously to protect themselves, but those are less likely to receive a thorough investigation than ones with a name attached.
OSHA also has to pick and choose where it uses its limited resources during a massive workplace safety crisis. As Michaels noted, there are workplaces where hundreds of employees have been sickened and several have died during this pandemic. Poking around the White House might not be the best use of time, especially for an agency that doesn’t seem to want to issue citations anyway.
“I think OSHA has more important places not to intervene,” Michaels said sarcastically.
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