Within a week of assuming the presidency, Joe Biden had already signed more than 17 executive orders that could impact labor conditions across the country, including pandemic response, workplace safety and LGBTQ protections.
Here are some of the biggest changes that may be coming to your workplace as a result:
1. People who quit their jobs due to inadequate COVID-19 precautions can still be eligible for unemployment.
One of Biden’s executive orders directed the Department of Labor to “consider clarifying that workers who refuse unsafe working conditions can still receive unemployment insurance.”
Previously, most states were dealing with the matter on a “case-by-case basis,” said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. A person’s failure to accept “suitable work” can result in the denial of unemployment benefits, and states hold different interpretations of what suitable work means during a pandemic. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R), for example, said in April that employees who refused to return to their jobs as the state reopened would be ineligible for unemployment insurance because their quitting was “voluntary.”
Stettner said he anticipates the Labor Department will provide clear scenarios so that what constitutes unsafe working conditions will be more clear and the burden of proof will be less of a hurdle for both benefits claimants and program administrators. Then, he said, “The states could develop forms and procedures, and say, ‘OK, what is your immunocompromised status, upload your doctor’s note here,’ and then hopefully it can be processed in a timely fashion.”
Donna Ballman, a Florida-based employment attorney, expects the Labor Department will look at government safety requirements including local laws and guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine what constitutes quitting for cause. “The employer would then have to prove that they did comply with safety standards. Basic safety, such as requiring masks, providing hand sanitizer, putting up Plexiglas dividers, etc. will be the biggest issues,” Ballman said. “I’m still hearing about employers who mock or even punish employees for wearing masks.”
2. Companies will likely face stricter COVID-19 rules from OSHA — and harsher penalties for violations.
We know workplaces like meatpacking and food processing plants can be hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks. One study found that, through July, between 236,000 and 310,000 COVID-19 cases were connected to livestock processing facilities alone. But OSHA, the federal agency charged with protecting worker safety, has been criticized for weak enforcement and failing to keep violators in check. Under former President Donald Trump, fines were low and inspections few.
On Jan. 22, Biden signed an executive order that called for OSHA to review and update its COVID-19 workplace safety recommendations within the next two weeks. It also ordered the agency to ramp up enforcement efforts.
John Ho, an employment attorney and chair of the law firm Cozen O’Connor’s OSHA practice, said he anticipates a marked change in how Biden’s administration will approach workplace safety, with regulation coming first. “With Trump’s administration, it was voluntary compliance first, then enforcement when necessary, and the last, which they didn’t even do, was the regulation,” Ho said.
If temporary emergency standards are necessary, Biden ordered they be issued by March 15. New standards could make it more clear when citations should be issued, as opposed to OSHA inspectors relying on the vague standard of general duty when it comes to employee safety during the pandemic. “If [OSHA passes] an emergency regulation that if you cannot social distance, then you must wear a mask … If you have something that specific, it’s going to be much more black-and-white,” Ho said. “Either you complied with that provision or you didn’t.”
Some states already have their own temporary emergency standards. Michigan, for example, requires employers to provide non-medical-grade face masks as personal protective equipment at no cost to employees. If OSHA determines that items such as face masks should be required to keep workers safe, then the same no-cost requirement would kick in for employers covered under OSHA, Ho said.
3. Masks are now required on planes, public transportation and all federal property — including offices and other workplaces.
If you’re commuting to work or in the business of transportation, mask up. One of Biden’s new executive orders requires masks on planes, trains, buses and public transportation. It covers interstate travel, but is not a national mask mandate that overrides state and local laws.
Another order requires mask-wearing on all federal properties, which covers huge swaths of government employees. The order states that federal agencies will “immediately take action” to ensure compliance, but the order doesn’t address what enforcement would look like.
4. LGBTQ employees have stronger federal protections against discrimination.
Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that workers are protected by law from discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The Trump administration tried to limit the application of the court’s decision, however, and undermined protections in ways both big and small.
On Wednesday, Biden strengthened anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people by directing federal agencies to make sure their statutes, regulations and other guidance applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. His executive order also extends protections into areas including housing and education.
“All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation,” the executive order read.
5. Transgender service members can work openly in the military again.
On Monday, Biden reversed a Trump administration policy, implemented in April 2019, that required transgender people to enlist in the military under the sex they were assigned at birth. Under Biden’s order, transgender service members will be immediately protected from “involuntary separations, discharges, and denials of reenlistment or continuation of service on the basis of gender identity or under circumstances relating to their gender identity.”
“President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” read a White House statement.
6. Diversity and inclusion trainings for federal workers and contractors are back.
The federal government is the nation’s largest employer, with more than two million civilian workers. It contracts with companies across the nation that employ millions more.
On his first day in office, Biden rescinded an earlier directive by the Trump administration that limited discussions of racism, sexism and other systemic power dynamics — like those held in diversity and inclusion trainings for federal employees and contractors. Such sessions were labeled “un-American” by the Trump administration.
In his executive order, Biden directed federal agencies to report back on equity in their agencies within 200 days, including documenting potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face with accessing benefits and services in federal programs.
7. DACA is being preserved.
Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which provides relief from deportation and a work permit for undocumented individuals who came to the U.S. as children — it remains in effect, although DACA still faces legal challenges. In one of his immigration-related executive orders, Biden told the secretary of homeland security to take all appropriate actions to “preserve and fortify” DACA.
There are an estimated 98,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year and begin careers with additional risks and responsibilities.
In Biden’s proposed immigration legislation, he outlined a path to citizenship for immigrants without documents. In his plan, people with DACA status are eligible for green cards immediately and undocumented people would be able to apply for temporary legal status, with the ability to apply for green cards after five years. After three additional years, green card holders who pass further background checks can apply to become citizens.