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Returning Workers Still Question Workplace Safety As Pandemic Continues

New York, NY – Three weeks into Phase 4 of the city’s reopening plan and more workers are making their way back to the job. While many have welcomed the opportunity to return after months of COVID-19 quarantine, they still have questions about the safety guidelines and protocols that their employers should be implementing to maintain workplace safety.

Restaurant workers are urging the new mayor to help eliminate the 'shift swap' provision.
In just two weeks, more than 10,000 food service workers applied for ROC-NY’s pandemic relief fund.

Some of those workers took the opportunity to provide an update about their recent experiences during a joint panel discussion and press event hosted by Cornell University’s Worker Institute and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). 

ROC has grown into a national organization, boasting 130,000 restaurant workers, employers, allies and consumers. In March, ROC-NY established a pandemic relief fund, which acted as a lifeline for 6,000 food service workers across New York State and other parts of the country, according to Prabhu Sigamani, the Director of ROC-New York. 

“In the first two weeks that we set up the pandemic relief fund, we received more than 10,000 applications, the demand for the relief fund is still high as the workers are facing challenges to get employment, and we thank the generous donors who have contributed towards the well-being of the restaurant workers,” said Sigamani.

In addition to the relief fund, ROC has been mobilizing its members to put pressure on major corporation-owned restaurants such as Olive Garden, Applebee’s and Chilis to provide critical job protection benefits to workers during the public health crisis. 

“And, restaurant workers must be given paid sick days and paid medical leave so that they have the medical attention and protection they need during this pandemic,” Sigamani said. 

Yesenia Mata, executive director of La Colmena, an immigrant and day labor rights organization in Staten Island, said that when the city announced back in March that there was going to be a shutdown, the worker center had to make a heavy decision about whether to keep its doors open or shut. 

It ultimately remained open because she and her staff knew that the immigrant community would be desperate without its services. The center shifted into emergency mode and began to assume new roles it hadn’t fulfilled before, such as food distribution. 

“At first, we had just enough food for 40 people. But then one day, we had 200 to 300 people on line outside and they were saying that they needed help, not only that they needed food, but they needed economic support,” said Mata. 

She added that there needs to be a robust policy solution by elected leaders to provide much deserved economic relief to New Yorkers, particularly undocumented workers who do not receive federal relief. Currently, state senator Jessica Ramos has sponsored a bill that would tax the unrealized capital gains of the state’s 119 billionaires and directs the revenue from the tax into a worker bailout fund. 

One group of workers that haven’t been as negatively affected during the pandemic are writers in the news and entertainment industries. 

According to Lowell Peterson, executive director, Writers’ Guild of America-East, being unionized has made all the difference in the world.

When the pandemic first hit, one of the first things the union did was to identify the needs of its members, and then followed up those inquiries by working with sister unions to work on negotiating safety protocols with the employers, and also negotiating with the city and the state. 

“This being in the unionized industry has made a huge difference to the experience of Writers’ Guild members as production has reopened,” said Peterson. 

While many of the union’s writers have been able to work from home, allowing them to essentially self-quarantine, others have had to return to work on set as production has been resuming. 

“A lot of people are very worried about going into big sound stage environments where you’ll have 250 people all in an enclosed indoor space,” Peterson said.

He added that physical distancing is a challenge, particularly in the entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to actors.

“We don’t represent actors, but we work closely with actors. And it’s very difficult to have a drama where all the actors have to be six feet apart, these have presented real challenges.”

Powell then noted that although his members have been able to work remotely, many workers in the entertainment industry are still not employed, not because there isn’t a demand for the product, but because it’s been difficult to make it safe for people to actually do the work. 

“So, I would say that return to work has been spotty for all these reasons, but I’m proud to say that because these are such heavily unionized industries, safety of the workers has been paramount, and the workers’ voices have been heard by the producers, by the mayor, by the governor and by legislators in Albany and Washington, D.C.,” Peterson said. 

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