Labor unions representing millions of nurses and other frontline workers across the U.S. are voicing outrage at new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows essential employees who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus to return to work more quickly.
"The loosened guidelines are dangerous, and risk exposing other workers and the public to infection, with supposed mitigation measures that are far less effective in reducing the threat of spreading the virus," Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, said in a statement Friday.
"These reckless guidelines were not issued to protect workers, but rather to ensure the continuity of business profits."
—Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO
The new CDC guidelines, published on the agency's website Wednesday, state that "critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community."
Those precautions include requiring exposed employees to take their temperature prior to work, wear a mask in the workplace for 14 days after exposure, and "practice social distancing as work duties permit."
Previous CDC guidance urged exposed workers to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.
NNU, which represents more than 150,000 nurses nationwide, warned in a Medium post Friday that the "as work duties permit" qualifier for social distancing is "a significant loophole that can be easily exploited by employers."
"The latest CDC guidelines continue the pattern of weeks of CDC rolling back protective standards, especially for nurses and other health care workers," said NNU. "That includes weaker guidelines on personal protective equipment that has encouraged hospitals to push the use of unsafe PPE, from loose-fitting surgical masks to bandanas, rather than N95 respiratory masks, unsafe methods including reuse and decontamination of N95 masks, for which there is no validated scientific evidence that it is safe, and press exposed staff to prematurely come back to work."
Other union leaders joined NNU in condemning the CDC's new guidance, which comes as President Donald Trump continues his push to reopen the U.S. economy despite warnings from medical professionals that doing so too soon would intensify the coronavirus outbreak.
"Once again the CDC is putting profits over people with its latest recommendations that downgrade worker protections at a time when they are needed most," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. "These dangerous new guidelines tell employers to keep potentially infected workers at work, which does not protect essential workers on the front lines and ignores firmly established science that there is significant transmission from asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals."
"These reckless guidelines were not issued to protect workers, but rather to ensure the continuity of business profits," Trumka added. "These recommendations will lead to many more deaths of those working on our front lines. They must be immediately revoked."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, weighed in on Twitter:
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) April 9, 2020
In a statement on Thursday, Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said the new CDC guidelines "risk endangering workers, their families, their communities, and the public."
"This is a total reversal of the policy CDC has for the public, which states clearly that people who have been exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days," said Dixon. "With this new policy, the Trump administration has completely abandoned its responsibility to protect workers."