New York, NY – Phase 1 of the city’s reopening plan begins this week, but as social distancing restrictions ease, labor leaders are pushing a new order meant to protect people of color from systemic threats to their safety on the job and outside of work.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how vital the nation’s “essential workers” really are — it has also exposed a system that has little regard for minority workers.
According to the New York City Comptroller’s Offices, Black, Asian and Hispanic minorities make up more than 70-percent of the frontline employees working in grocery, convenience and drug stores; public transportation; trucking, warehouse and postal services; healthcare; childcare; homeless services, food and family services and building cleaning services.
Black essential workers who dominate healthcare (32%), public transportation (41%) and the trucking, warehouse and postal industries (33%) not only have to deal with the low-wages, paltry benefits, long hours and the high stress that comes with those careers — they also have to face the added anxiety of police brutality, racial profiling or racial harassment outside of work.
In response, labor leaders are calling on elected officials to pass the New York Health and Essential Rights Order (NY HERO).
“We’re at a point in history where we have experienced two tragic pandemics at once; one is a health crisis disproportionately impacting people of color and the other is one of a long standing history of society turning a blind-eye to the systemic abuses of how people of color are treated,” Mark Carotenuto, president of UFCW Local 2013, said. “People of color are, by large numbers, employed in what are now considered ‘essential jobs.”
Healthcare, food workers, grocery stores workers and the food preparers should not have to beg to be paid or treated properly — and people of color should not have to beg to be treated equally, Carotenuto added.
Beverley Brakeman, the regional director of United Auto Workers, Region 9A, agrees.
“One blatant truth of the past three months is that those of us who had the privilege to work and live in our homes safely could do so because our frontline essential workers, the vast majority of whom are Black, Latinx, and Asian, put their lives on the line every day that they went to work,” Brakeman said. “As New Yorkers took to the street united against the police’s systemic violence against Blacks, a second blatant truth emerged – essential workers of color were targeted by the police for being out past the curfew imposed by Mayor de Blasio as they commuted to and from work. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to what we are seeing.”
City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo [D-35th District] shared that sentiment on June 7, the day Mayor Bill de Blasio’s overnight curfew, which was put in place to control protests, was lifted.
“This morning, the mayor announced that the citywide curfew would end a day ahead of schedule,” Cumbo said. “While this is good news, a curfew was not warranted, nor beneficial to our city. The curfew was used by the NYPD as another tactic to intimidate, harass, and brutalize members of black and brown communities.”
Brakeman, along with Professional Staff Congress/CUNY President Barbara Bowen; 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg; DC 37, AFSCME Executive Director Henry Garrido ; 1199 SEIU President George Gresham; NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez and CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor, all signed on to a joint statement this week, sent to the mayor, governor and police commissioner, condemning police brutality and supporting the Black Lives Movement.
“As labor unions, we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have risen up to protest against state violence towards people of color, systemic racism, and police brutality. We cannot and will not stand down as we witness daily the violent response of the NYPD without reprimand nor consequence,” the labor leaders said. “We join the struggle for a more just and equitable society. We condemn police violence. We demand strong and accountable leadership from our elected officials. And we are confident that together, we will overcome.”
The NY Hero bill would require employers to provide enforceable health and safety standards in the workplace for all workers; empower workers to raise concerns about health and safety; and protect workers from retaliation when they speak out. The order seeks to quickly improve the health and safety of all those who have remained on the front lines throughout the pandemic, as well as those who will be returning to work in the coming weeks.
“Many of our members are eager to begin the re-opening of the city and going back to work, but they want to do so safely,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “Workplace protections alone are not enough to ensure safety. We are deeply troubled by the behavior of the police towards protestors since the tragic death of George Floyd. New York City’s retail workforce is incredibly diverse and as we return to work we need to know that all workers will be safe as they come to and from work. That means security in knowing that you will not be targeted by the police for the color of your skin.”