On Workers Memorial Day, unions still pleading for enforceable federal protections from deadly COVID-19

Every year on April 28, local unions hold Workers Memorial Day ceremonies to honor their members who died in the last 12 months as a result of work-related injury or illness – and to renew the call for safer workplaces.

This year, with Minnesota under a statewide stay-at-home order, on-site observances were canceled. (The Minnesota AFL-CIO will livestream a ceremony on Facebook tonight at 6 p.m.)

That meant no black scarves draped over crosses bearing the names of the fallen, no mourners standing shoulder to shoulder, offering prayers and observing moments of silence to mark the solemn day.

But with many union members on the front lines of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 – often without the necessary protective gear – unions nationwide planned to mark Workers Memorial Day 2020 with an urgent call, as the rallying cry goes, to “mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

“As the virus continues to spread, many employers are woefully unprepared,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the nation’s highest-ranking labor leader, wrote in a letter to affiliate unions. “Guidance from federal authorities has been inconsistent at best and dangerous at worst…

“Working people are doing our part in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. Now our government must do the same by issuing strong enforceable protections for all workers at risk during this pandemic.”

Letting bosses off the hook

So far, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has resisted union demands to establish emergency temporary standards for workplaces during the pandemic. Instead, the federal agency charged with protecting workers’ health and safety, OSHA, has distributed “guidance” to employers, none of which is enforceable.

A report published in the Washington Post revealed OSHA received more than 3,000 complaints related to the coronavirus from January through early April. The total number of worker complaints, though, is likely much higher, as some states, including Minnesota, collect and investigate OSHA complaints on their own.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration has over the last three years steadily chipped away at the number of federal OSHA investigators, which stands at its lowest point in the agency’s history. And despite the public health crisis, the agency’s director chair sits unfilled.

Meanwhile, unions warn that Trump’s Centers for Disease Control put communities at risk when it loosened guidelines covering essential workers exposed to COVID-19 earlier this month.

Previously, the CDC urged workers to self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to work. But the new guidelines permit essential workers to make an immediate return, as long as they remain asymptomatic, take their temperature prior to work, wear a mask and practice social distancing “as work duties permit.”

“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,” National Nurses United Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said.

Where’s the PPE?

In March, as Minnesota hospitals scrambled to prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients, union nurses began collecting N-95 masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) at the Minnesota Nurses Association’s St. Paul offices.

It was a chilling indication that hospitals and nursing homes here were anticipating the same shortages – PPE, ventilators, testing kits – reported by facilities in other parts of the county.

Unions, including AFSCME, SEIU and the Nurses, called on President Trump to use the power of the Defense Production Act to speed up production of PPE and needed medical supplies. But Trump has so far used the DPA sparingly, pitting hospitals and state governments against each other for access to a limited supply of lifesaving equipment.

A report issued April 16 by the Public Accountability Initiative found Trump bowed to pressure from corporate lobbyists with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who urged him not to deploy the DPA.

Many of the most powerful corporations in the Chamber, the report found, have direct financial interests in how the COVID-19 response plays out. That includes medical manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell, major employers of frontline workers and big banks.

“The largest, wealthiest, and most powerful corporations and industries have to show leadership by looking past their bottom lines,” SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said. “Unfortunately their response so far has been nothing short of appalling.”

Death toll climbing

It’s a cruel irony that Workers Memorial Day observances had to be canceled at a time when so many working people – essential workers providing care to the sick, delivering food to families, stocking shelves with the supplies we need – are putting themselves at risk just by reporting to their jobs.

The AFL-CIO created an online memorial to American union members who died after contracting COVID-19.

As this edition of The Advocate went to press, the number of deaths listed on the page stood at 124. So far, none of the fallen was from Minnesota.

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