Queens, NY – Essential workers, labor activists and safety advocates are increasing their demand for better protections for frontline workers in a new COVID-19 relief package already approved by the House, but left in limbo since July 2, when the U.S. Senate was last in session.
While essential workers have been working non-stop since the coronavirus outbreak began early this year — U.S. senators have been missing in action since at least the July 4th holiday weekend. The millionaire legislators are due back on July 20, but will skip out, once again, on August 10, and won’t return until September 8.
That leaves workers and their allies with a narrow window to convince lawmakers to vote for the most recent COVID-19 relief package, which includes additional stimulus checks, expanding the Paycheck Protection Program, hazard pay, testing, and more.
So far, more than 88,000 healthcare workers; 37,000 meatpacking, food processing and farmworkers; and 5,900 grocery workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. That’s in addition to outbreaks among postal workers, transportation workers and other essential workers, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [COSH].
“To see our senators delay and go on recess while workers are dying is disgraceful – and an insult to the workers who have died, their families, and all those still at risk,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “This is urgent. This is an emergency. It’s time for our elected representatives to stop insulting us and start representing us.”
Some of the workers that are at risk include 70,000 Stop & Shop grocery store workers employed throughout the northeast, and represented by RWDSU/UFCW. The frontline workers recently saw their hazard pay cut, despite the surge of COVID-19 across the country.
“It is inexcusable that a company that has made extraordinary profits during the COVID-19 crisis would think of ending the critical pay our members need,” RWDSU/UFCW local presidents said in a joint statement. “Let us be clear, our members didn’t sign up to be frontline heroes in a health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen, but they rose to the call and fed America. The essential pay they received during this crisis isn’t ‘appreciation’ as Stop and Shop suggests, but critical pay to ensure their families were safe amid the crisis we’re facing – a crisis that is far from over.”
Christine Merola, a 30-year veteran of the supermarket industry, has worked the last five years as a bookkeeper at the Stop & Shop in Howard Beach, Queens. She drives nearly 15-miles to work every day and has been isolated from her children and elderly mom since March. For her, the loss of hazard pay has been frustrating, to say the least.
“The hazard pay was a wonderful plus,” Merola says. “It was a ‘thank you’ for appreciating us. It made you feel like you were somebody, and also at the end of the week, it gave you a little bit to put away, God forbid, you did get sick.”
Merola and her colleagues were shocked to learn their hazard pay would be eliminated.
“We thought that since it’s not over the [hazard pay] would be extended again,” Merola says. “It was a 10-percent increase in our weekly check.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio is still considering moving the city into Phase 4 of his reopening plan on July 20. But Merola’s is wary. Her Stop & Shop job isn’t far from John F. Kennedy International Airport and she worries about an influx of travelers returning to NYC flouting social distancing guidelines and masks.
Like so many other essential workers, trying to maintain familial ties while self-isolating and being mindful about the ongoing threat of COVID-19, has been rough on Merola.
“It was scary,” Merola says. “You don’t want to get close. I would watch [my] glass and be like, ‘don’t drink out of my water.’ You have to be very aware and wash your hands all the time. As soon as I got home, I had to change out of my clothes. You had to wipe everything down. It was stressful not being able to see your family. It was hard not to see my mother.”
Merola credits her union, Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, for pushing Stop & Shop to secure more personal protection equipment [PPE] for employees and other safety measures.
“Everything that we had to do was from the union pushing to keep us safe,” Merola says. “They pushed for hazard pay, plexiglass and a face shield.”
Michael Leon Guerrero, the executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), believes that essential workers like Merola are doing their best to keep the country going, but doesn’t believe the U.S. is doing enough to sustain them.
Together with COSH, Greenpeace USA, MoveOn and Academy Award-winning actor Jane Fonda, LNS, this week, introduced a new video called “In Memoriam — “Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living,” aimed at rallying U.S. voters to call senators at (202) 224-3121 and push them to pass new COVID-19 legislation.
Leonard Roseus, an 1199 SEIU member from New York City, lost his father and fellow 1199 SEIU member to COVID-19 on April 5 – nine days after the otherwise healthy 66-year-old was hospitalized. Dr. Yves Roseus immigrated from Haiti in 1975, obtained four degrees in the U.S., and inspired his son to work in healthcare and join 1199 SEIU. He is also featured in the memorial video.
“As an occupational therapist, my dad went above and beyond for his patients, making sure they had the tools to recover and live fully – even when insurance was inadequate,” Leonard Roseus says.
Merola knows eight people who contracted the virus. Three of them have died.
“One person had no symptoms – no nothing,” she says. “Everything was fine. They didn’t even know they had it. Another one was sick for three weeks. She is a grown adult woman, [but] all she said was, ‘All I want is my mother.'”
Merola has little sympathy for people who complain about having to wear a mask while shopping for their groceries. She wears one eight hours a day.
“Be thankful you don’t have to wear it for eight hours – or for a 12-hour shift like a doctor or a nurse,” she says.
Merola also wants the public – and the companies that employ them – to start taking the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic more seriously.
“If I have to wear a mask to protect myself at work then, obviously, the hazard isn’t over – and the hazard pay shouldn’t be over either,” she says. “People need to wear a mask and the company needs to step up.”