Unions push for worker safety during outbreak

As conditions at the workplace change rapidly during the coronavirus outbreak, unions are on the front lines calling for safer working conditions and more humane policies to help ease the social, economic and health burdens for workers.

The Minnesota Nurses Association have pointed out that according to their surveys, the vast majority of hospitals are not providing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent spread of the virus to healthcare workers.

“Now is not the time to get it half-right,” said MNA President Mary C. Turner. “The difference between optimal measures and sub-optimal is lives at stake, people affected, and hospitals full of patients. If nurses are not protected, there will be no nurses to care for patients.”

At this time, it’s understood that the coronavirus can be spread through both airborne particles and fluid contact, which the MNA says requires the highest levels of prevention.

“Nurses are shocked at the recent relaxing of CDC guidelines on using PPE,” Turner said. “This is a time to firm up practices. To make sure we’re using only the safest equipment, like the N95 mask. And to make sure we’ve got plans on isolating suspected positive patients.”

The CDC recently rolled back guidelines on PPE to promote using the looser, ill-fitting surgical masks instead of more protective N95 mask. Nurses are also concerned the CDC is no longer recommending moving suspected or positive infectious patients to isolation rooms. Minnesota lawmakers and healthcare facilities, however, have the ability to provide stronger protections for healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, the executive director of AFSCME Council 5 called for all employers in the state of Minnesota to pay workers in full during the crisis. “We cannot leave the working-class to suffer further from COVID-19,” said Julie Bleyhl. “We must all be united and work together to ensure that no worker has to choose between their life and a paycheck.”

Nationally, unions applauded the passage of H.R. 6201, which expands unemployment insurance, food access programs such as WIC, and increased testing funds.

“At the same time, I am disgusted that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and a number of US business leaders actively worked to strip a real paid sick leave policy from this bill,” said UNITE HERE President D. Taylor. “During a health emergency such as this international pandemic, their actions are morally reprehensible and a national disgrace. No one should have to choose between paying the bills and their health.”

If it is good enough for a member of Congress to miss work and get paid, you’d think it is good enough for every American worker to have the same benefit,” Taylor added.

As governors across the county encourage employers to let workers work remotely when possible, American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said more was needed from the federal government after the OMB issued guidance for telework for federal employees who live in Washington, D.C.

“From the very beginning of this emerging health crisis, our union has been calling on the administration to immediately allow all federal employees to telework if they are able,” Kelley said. “Yet OMB’s guidance fails to address the 85% of federal workers who live and work outside the nation’s capital.”

The administration must take more direct to protect federal employees and the public they serve by immediately ordering all federal employees nationwide to telework if the work they do can be accomplished at home, Kelley said.

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