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National Shame: Four Months, Three Bailouts Later And Essential Workers Still Don’t Have What They Need to Confront COVID-19

New York, NY – Four months into the coronavirus crisis and low-wage workers on the front lines and those caring for our most vulnerable populations nationwide are still not getting the basic Personal Protection Equipment [PPE] they need to keep safe or the ability to take paid time off if they get sick.

While the last relief package to come out of Washington, D.C. is being called a “massive bailout for corporations” and “triage at best”— essential workers, including home care attendants, are still doing their jobs without fundamental protections and safeguards.

Joyce Barnes has been a home care worker for more than 30 years. It’s a hands on job where social distancing is not an option. Despite that, the SEIU Local 512 member from Sandston, Virginia says her employers have never supplied her with proper PPE or paid sick days.

One colleague, according to Barnes, has even resorted to fashioning homemade face masks “out of paper towels.”

“My agency never supplied me with anything — no nothing,” Barnes recently told reporters via teleconference. “They didn’t give me a phone call or email about what to do for these patients. I’m not getting the help I need.”

The 61-year-old aid worker is putting in 16-hour days providing constant care for two clients during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic — one recently suffered a major stroke and the other is a double amputee. Barnes earns just $8.25-an-hour for one shift and $9.40-an hour for the other, which also includes grocery shopping and meal preparation. Barnes says she doesn’t earn enough for private health insurance and too much for Medicaid. 

Her tireless dedication recenty moved one patient to tell Barnes, “You look like you should be in this bed instead of me.” 

“I have to keep coming — I work or get evicted,” Barnes says. “I don’t understand how the Trump administration cut out these five sick days from us — I don’t understand why they forget about us.” 

Huge carve outs and loopholes in last month’s $2.2 trillion federal relief/bailout package exempting large employers have left some 61 million workers — many of them essential low-wage earners like Barnes — without access to paid sick leave. 

In New York — the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in the United States — as many as four million workers — including fast food workers and other frontline food deliverers — have been left without paid sick leave protections. 

Elizabeth Holt and her husband were both laid off from their jobs working at an Applebee’s restaurant in San Antonio, Texas on March 16, after the city’s mayor ordered eateries closed except for pick up and delivery service. A week later, they were both fired without ever having received paid sick leave, paid family or medical leave — or any sort of emergency relief package. 

The multi-million-dollar corporation did, however, offer the terminated couple a 50-percent discount on to-go orders. Not including the baby back ribs. 

“It’s devastating to know that we’ve been with this company for so long and we get nothing — not even paid sick days — from management in times of public health and economic crisis,” Holt recently told reporters.

Like millions of her fellow Americans, Holt said she and her husband have been having trouble applying for unemployment because of the massive backlog. 

“We did some research and found out that Applebee’s could have stepped up and filed a mass claim on behalf of its workers,” she added. “Again, the management did nothing — period. I know that we are not the only family struggling to put food on the table and make ends meet. Our rent and utility bills are due and we don’t know what the next day will look like for us.”

Devastated workers are hoping against hope, that the next relief package coming out of Washington, D.C.  will offer them something more than crumbs. 

If included in the next package and enacted, the PAID Leave Act would provide all workers and those deemed “independent contractors” with 14 emergency paid sick days during the current COVID-19 crisis and other similar public health emergencies — in addition to 12 weeks of emergency paid family and medical leave. The federal government would cover the costs by directly reimbursing employers. 

Almost 20-percent of the American workforce — or 32 million people — did not have access to paid sick leave when the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak first hit the U.S. back in January. The United States of America and Papa New Guinea are the only two nations on the planet without some sort of national paid sick leave policy. 

The PAID Leave Act additionally seeks to establish a permanent family and medical leave insurance program that would also allow workers to accrue seven paid sick days.  

During a recent teleconference advocating for the PAID Leave Act, Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley admitted that the last relief package to come out of Washington, D.C. was a “massive bailout for corporations” — but insisted that she and her fellow Democrats have been “focused on the people and a people’s bailout.” 

“We all wanted it to be more, and recognized we’re in a crisis and we had to get some relief out,” the congress member said. 

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY] also conceded that what Democrats were able to accomplish with the last relief package was “triage at best.”

“What we’re trying to do in this next 3.5 package, as we call it, is fix some of the things that were wrong and how it was implemented by the [Trump] administration,” the senator said. 

Sepia Coleman, a home care provider and certified nursing assistant earning just $10.50-an-hour in Memphis, Tennessee, is tired of corporations being bailed out while essential workers like her are left to twist in the wind. 

“Despite the crucial roll of keeping our clients safe from coronavirus, this is the most inhumane, unsafe and unappreciated line of work I know,” she recently told reporters during another teleconference. “In Memphis, we have no union rights, so we have no voice —especially during this crisis.”

Coleman’s clients include a 30-year-old paraplegic, who she not only bathes, feeds and clothes, but also gives him the respect and warmth he needs to live independently at home. Her other job is at a local nursing home where the threat of COVID-19 is omnipresent. Neither position offers Coleman paid sick days — and she is not been provided with proper PPE. 

“We don’t have [face] shields, gowns, sanitizers — we don’t even have masks,” Coleman said. “When you see a firefighter, they have on their equipment. Would you send a firefighter into a burning building without equipment? 

Workers who continue to struggle amidst the coronavirus pandemic will have to continue struggling, however. U.S. senators and representatives have been “out of the office” since March 20, and aren’t due back at the Capitol until May 4. 

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