As Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz “turns the dial” on some restrictions on business and socializing, unions are trying to keep up with changing regulations and recommendations to keep workers safe.
For many, the main concern is ensuring personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers as they do their jobs.
“With the lapse in the ‘Stay at Home’ order and the move to a less restrictive ‘Stay Safe’ order, the Minnesota Nurses Association urges state officials, hospital administrators, and all Minnesotans to protect healthcare workers and each other by increasing our supply of PPE, dramatically expanding capacity for COVID-19 virus testing, and continuing to social distance,” said Mary C. Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.
“Failure to protect each other will result in a dramatic spike in positive cases, overload hospitals, and cause the very caregivers we need to succumb to the virus themselves,” she said.
The union has reservations regarding the timing of lifting the state’s shelter-in-place orders, which were set to expire Monday, May 18. “At a time when hospitals continue to dangerously ration PPE, new supply lines have not appeared in state warehouses, and the Minnesota Department of Health still cannot show that testing has dramatically increased,” Turner said.
The union plans a protest at the State Capitol on Wednesday, May 20, to call attention to the lack of PPE. Members will start the march at United Hospital, where an ER nurse was fired last week after being fired for violating hospital policy regarding uniforms and scrubs. He said he was trying to protect his family by not wearing his hospital scrubs home.
The march will then proceed to the capitol while participants follow social distance recommendations.
Turner struck a cautious note while acknowledging the difficulties of keeping businesses closed. “Nurses also hope to re-open Minnesota businesses as soon as possible, but, just as many other Minnesotans have expressed, it’s not possible to do so without jeopardizing the safety of healthcare workers and all Minnesotans,” she said. “Nurses believe that the decision to turn the dial to re-open Minnesota requires every Minnesotan to turn the dial to find more PPE, more beds, and more tests while protecting healthcare workers and each other.”
Part of Walz’s actions last week included an executive order protecting workers who report safety issues from employer retaliation. Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy hailed that move, saying it’s vital that workers are empowered to report unsafe working conditions.
“The simple truth is that our economy cannot rebound unless employers are held accountable to implement safety measures to protect both workers and public health,” he said. “Failing to do so would result in more workers falling sick and even more economic damage.”
In retail settings, many grocery stores are supplying masks to employees, and Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW Local 1189, told MPR news that when employees wear masks, that can raise the expectation among customers that wearing masks is the right thing to do.
Cloth masks can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and some stores are requiring both workers and customers to wear them.
“If you go into a store where all of the workers are wearing masks, then customers really feel as though that’s the expectation of the store and that it’s doing the right thing to wear their mask,” Christensen told MPR. “As masks become more available, more customers will be wearing them.”
As with all workers, Christensen stressed that grocery store workers want to work in a safe environment and customers can help in that regard.
“[They] just want to get through their day, do the job they’re supposed to do and get home safe to their families,” Christensen told MPR. “They want to be alive, they want to keep their mother alive and their children. They want to be there for the next wedding and graduation.”