A cashier behind a plexiglass barrier tries to enforce social distancing at a Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough, Maine. Staff Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

With states reopening for business and millions of people heading back to work, the nation's largest labor organization is demanding the federal government do more to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus on the job.

What's happening: The AFL-CIO, a collection of 55 unions representing 12.5 million workers, says it is suing the federal agency in charge of workplace safety to compel it to create a set of emergency temporary standards for infectious diseases.

Driving the news: The lawsuit against the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is expected to be filed on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

  • Citing an urgent threat to "essential" workers and those being called back to work as government-imposed lockdowns are lifted, the AFL-CIO is asking the court to force OSHA to act within 30 days.
  • It wants a rule that would require each employer to evaluate its workplace for the risk of airborne disease transmission and to develop a comprehensive infection control plan that could include social distancing measures, masks and other personal protective equipment and employee training.

The agency has issued guidance, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in multiple industries — including dentist offices, nursing homes, manufacturing, meat processing, airlines and retail.

  • But the unions complain these are only recommendations, not requirements, and that mandatory rules should be imposed.
  • OSHA has been considering an infectious disease standard for more than a decade, it notes, and has drafted a proposed standard.

U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, in a letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, said employers are already taking steps to protect workers and that OSHA's industry-tailored guidelines provide more flexibility than a formal rule for all employers.

Yes, but: OSHA has received more than 3,800 safety complaints related to COVID-19 as of May 4, but it had already close to about 2,200 of them without issuing a single citation, according to the AFL-CIO.

What they're saying: "It's truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety," Trumka said.

  • "But we’ve been left no choice. Millions are infected and nearly 90,000 have died, so it’s beyond urgent that action is taken to protect workers who risk our lives daily to respond to this public health emergency."
  • "If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to."

The other side: "The Department is committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end," a Labor Department spokesperson said. "The Department is confident it will prevail in this counterproductive lawsuit."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the Labor Department.

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