Pandemic Safety: How Unions Can Protect Workers When Employers Don’t
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how important it is to protect workers during crises that have severe economic impacts.
A lot of workplaces were unprepared for the chaos of such a pandemic and have struggled to adapt to new conditions and regulations. As a result of that unpreparedness, a recent Gallup poll shows that workers expect the coronavirus pandemic to negatively impact their company or workplace.
And workers are the ones who are suffering the most.
Millions of people have been laid off, furloughed or had their hours limited. Millions of others are working under uncertain health and safety conditions. Though they have been the most impacted, workers have had no voice in government and business decisions that directly impact their welfare, writes Thomas Kochan, professor of management and co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.
It has become abundantly clear that when employers are slow to respond to a crisis, workers need allies who will advocate for their jobs and safety.
Unions and labor movement supporters have stepped up to fill that role. They are giving workers a louder voice not only at work but within the broader confines of the labor movement, writes Lora Engdahl, publications director for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
Unions understand how to put workers first as they help both employees and employers navigate uncertain times.
Assessing Workers’ Risks in the Workplace
Workers who must go to a job site during a pandemic are put at risk of exposure, especially in workplaces that are slow to make adjustments (e.g. introducing distancing protocols, providing personal protective equipment).
To help workers, unions have to understand these risks in the workplace. It’s important to determine early on the seriousness of the threat of exposure and what measures, if any, are being taken to prevent infection. Unions have the resources and relationships to lead the way in reviewing an employer’s health and safety protocols, and assessing what risks workers are exposed to.
Union leaders or a union’s health and safety committee should start by determining how workers can get sick at work and which workers are most at risk. It’s also important to dissect existing workplace policies and programs to not only determine whether there is a pandemic plan, but to also judge how effective it would be at preventing an infectious agent’s spread in the workplace.
To accomplish this, the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (United Steelworkers) suggests union representatives or selected committees secure copies of comprehensive safety and health programs, infection control programs, exposure risk determinations, exposure-control measures, health assessment plans and pandemic response training. With these documents, union leaders can gauge employer preparedness for responding to the crisis.
That information can then be used to push a slow-moving employer to build or negotiate more effective pandemic health and safety policies.
Developing Appropriate Health and Safety Policies
For most union contracts, there likely isn’t any language specifically addressing a pandemic. Combine that with a workplace pandemic plan that is lacking or nonexistent, and it becomes a perfect storm for workers.
Linda Ward-Smith, a Department of Veterans Affairs nurse and president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1224 in Las Vegas, says: “The agency is ill-prepared for the national emergency upon us right now. Our frontline employees are being exposed, and they are not trained. They have been reassigned into areas they’ve never worked before.”
Of instances like these, Everett Kelley, national president of the AFGE, says: “I think we’re going to see some tragic times if we don’t come together and work together to resolve these issues.” That’s why it’s crucial that both sides work together during a pandemic, like COVID-19, to negotiate for health and safety protections for workers that not only apply to the current situation but also to future pandemics.
Though these negotiations may be outside of the regular bargaining period, they can still be done without opening the contract. It’s important for both sides to come together and negotiate new agreements that specifically address pandemic-related issues for the protection of employees.
Personal Protective Equipment
One key issue that unions are addressing is personal protective equipment for workers. It’s one of the most controversial, and pressing, issues to come out of the COVID-19 debacle because many workplaces weren’t prepared with proper PPE for workers deemed essential.
For example, healthcare workers are confronting a lack of masks, gloves and gowns right when they need them most. According to Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, nurses are being told to reuse masks in an infected patient’s room during a shift rather than throw them away, which is ineffective at preventing the spread of the virus. This is an issue that workers are protesting, and unions are attempting to negotiate, but it’s been a struggle to quickly find common ground in the high-pressure and over-worked environments of the healthcare sector.
That’s why unions, such as the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), are stepping up to provide for workers when possible. In late March 2020, the SEIU-UHW made available nearly 40 million N95 masks for workers and government officials.
SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan said at the time: “We are continuing to turn over every rock to see if we can find more personal protective equipment to make sure that healthcare workers, who are heroically putting their own health on the line to care for patients, can do their jobs as safely as possible.”
Unions must be ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure workers have the right PPE to stay safe on the job. It’s an issue that should be addressed as soon as risks are understood.
Workplace Protections Policies
Beyond the right PPE, employers also need to have specific policies in place to protect workers on the job.
The AFL-CIO says employers “have an obligation to maintain safe workplaces and should follow the precautionary principle.” In essence, they need to act sooner than later in response to a pandemic crisis.
Unions can help employers create the right policies.
For example, the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin has called for construction employers in the area to make adjustments to meetings and breaks so there aren’t any large groups congregating in one space. The organization has also supported staggering shifts so there are fewer workers in a facility at one time. “We’re communicating with our employers so we can be sure that our members are safe and still get the job done,” Council President Dave Branson says.
Communication is the key to ensuring both sides reach an understanding of what needs to be done to protect workers during a pandemic. Union leaders who reach out in the early phases of a pandemic will position themselves for greater success in getting the right policies implemented in time to actually have an impact on working conditions.
Securing Job Protections and Safety Nets
Unions also need to be mindful of securing workers’ jobs and negotiating as much financial security as possible during a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on labor and the economy.
“Time away from work to stop the spread of the virus should not mean loss of income, regardless of job or workplace,” asserts Ken Neumann, national director of the USW. “Unpaid job-protected leave doesn’t pay the bills.”
Too often, the first response from employers when finances get tight during a time of panic is to cut workers. But this is a knee-jerk reaction that unions can help to mitigate through bargaining. Some unions have been successful in curbing this tendency by employers and proactively securing job and pay protections for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (the Teamsters) has done that for its members by securing proposals with Waste Management for “job security, guaranteed pay, and excused absences for workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were also able to negotiate paid leave for Verizon workers who are unable to work during the outbreak for various reasons. One example in the agreement is paid leave of absence up to eight weeks at the regular hourly rate and up to 18 additional weeks of pay at 60 percent of pay for members who can’t work because they have to care for a person diagnosed with COVID-19.
These agreements are essential to protecting workers’ financial security at a time when there is almost none. These safety nets give workers the peace of mind they need to stay calm and focus on what matters most: keeping themselves and their families safe.
Ultimately, unions and employers must work together to shape and follow pandemic plans. Though it may be difficult for both sides to amicably and quickly reach agreements on how to address the workplace issues associated with a pandemic, it can be done if both sides work in good faith to put workers’ well-being first.
As union leaders work through this crisis, it’s essential that they communicate regularly with members about how employers are responding and what members need. A tool such as UnionTrack ENGAGE can facilitate those conversations.
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