Workers from more than half a dozen unions in the health care, sanitation, retail and other industries rallied last Tuesday at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jack Streich-Kest, a campaign coordinator for the community group ALIGN, said these neighborhoods are made up of essential workers who keep the city running. But while they kept working throughout the height of the outbreak, they lacked adequate protections, such as masks and gloves.
Other frontline workers were not told about their co-workers testing positive for the virus, or were retaliated against for complaining about the lack of protections.
“While many big corporations are making billions of dollars during this pandemic,” Streich-Kest said, “workers are being forced to put their lives on the line to make sure the city keeps running.”
With cases across the country spiking, and the federal government unwilling to step up to protect workers, Streich-Kest said the onus is on the state government to mandate and enforce workplace standards, such as providing masks, requiring social distancing and implementing cleaning regiments.
Advocacy groups also want employers to allow workers to come together and voice their concerns without retaliation.
While there is no legislation on the table yet, Streich-Kest said a legislative solution is preferable to an executive order.
“How many more deaths among our frontline workers is it going to take to provide basic, common sense protections?” added Maritiza Silva-Farrell, executive director of labor advocacy union ALIGN NY. “The New York State governor and legislature must swiftly and urgently provide our frontline workers more protections and power in their workplace.”
Judith Cutchin, a board member of the New York State Nurses Association and a nurse at Woodhull Hospital, implored lawmakers to “do the right thing” for essential workers by putting in place enforceable protocols.
She warned that the first surge of the coronavirus is still “alive and festering.”
“Don’t be fooled,” Cutchin said. “The pandemic is far from over and continues to pose a risk for essential workers and the public at large.
“That’s why New York needs to enter phase 3 with our eyes wide open,” she added, “with a strong sense of responsibility.”
Cutchin called for strong interventions from the state to fix things like the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE), which she said is still lacking.
“We nurses will be here for each and every one of you,” she said. “But in order to do that, we need protocols so that we can remain healthy.”
At the rally, several workers from different industries described their experiences dealing with the pandemic.
Hope Gilmore, a member of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1102 and a customer service representative at the EZ Pass Call Center, said her union president informed workers of a COVID-19 case at the workplace in mid-March. However, her employer allegedly did not keep workers updated.
It was only after six cases were confirmed that they began to work from home, Gilmore said. The customer service rep added that their facilities were only cleaned after they “begged for it.”
“We have been and remain unprotected,” she said. “We can’t have this happen again.”
One member of the Laundry Workers Center named Beatriz said she was not provided access to PPE, such as gloves, mask or hand sanitizer.
“We didn’t have any equipment before the pandemic and we were not given any equipment during the pandemic, so I got sick,” she explained. “Then I got fired because I couldn’t work anymore while being sick.”
At $6.50 an hour, Beatriz says she was also severely underpaid in addition to being put at risk without the proper safety gear. She demanded not only greater protections for essential workers like herself, but fair wages as well.
Javier Peña, a sanitation worker, said he too was subject to unfair exposure to COVID-19 due to lack of safety precautions by his employers. He explained that the offices and sanitation trucks he comes in contact with daily are not regularly sanitized, and employees are not given critical PPE items.
“To this day, we are still working under those conditions,” Peña revealed. “It’s not fair to us. We all have families to go home to.”
He shared the story of a late co-worker who had a compromised immune system and did not want to go work for fear of being infected. That colleague was forced to return to the job, and two weeks later he passed away from COVID-19 complications.
There are currently no clear standards in the State of New York that require employers to create safe work environments for their staff, nor to offer access to COVID testing.
“I truly believe that we should have a bill passed so that we will all be protected,” Peña said. “Right now, we are on our own protecting ourselves.”