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Coalition of frontline workers urges COVID-19 labor protections

By: Johanna Alonso | Daily Record business reporter

Members of unions representing Maryland’s frontline workers gathered on Tuesday to launch Protect Maryland Workers, a coalition advocating for legislation that would protect grocery, health care, transit and other essential employees during pandemics and other emergencies.

The proposed legislation, called the Maryland Essential Workers Protections Act, would require employers to provide increased support and safety protocols to essential workers during an emergency — the definition of which is outlined in the bill.

These protections include providing personal protective equipment at no cost to the employee, paying essential employees hourly hazard pay on top of regular wages and offering paid health and bereavement leave.

The coalition comprises over 30 organizations, including local chapters of labor unions, progressive political organizations and other advocacy groups. Leading the development of the legislation was the Maryland and D.C. division of the 1199SEIU, a regional union of health care employees.

Ricarra Jones, 1199SEIU’s political director, said she decided to create Protect Maryland Workers after listening to essential workers’ stories of being put in dangerous situations at work throughout the pandemic, with some complaints spanning a variety of industries.

“Hazard pay rises to the very top,” Jones said, noting that many frontline workers in Maryland are Black women who make as little as $12 dollars an hour. “They believe, fairly so, that if they are risking their lives to come to work that they should be compensated for it.”

If passed, the act would require all essential employees to be paid $3 per hour of hazard pay on top of their regular pay when in effect.

Sophia Atu, a nurse working at Prince George’s Hospital Center, which is part of the University of Maryland Medical System, said the only way she and her colleagues can make more money is to pick up extra shifts. Doing so is exhausting for nurses who are already on their feet caring for patients for 12 hours or more at a time, but sometimes it’s the only option to make enough to support their families, she said.

Atu said she has also seen fundraisers posted by the family members of fellow nurses who passed away from COVID-19. “It is so (heartbreaking) because many of them, when they get sick, they run out of their vacation, they run out of PTOs, the families don’t even have nothing to lean on,” Atu said. “So unless the GoFundMe money is raised, the nurse cannot be buried.”

Other common complaints include a lack of PPE, even in health care settings, and workers not being paid when they have to take time off to await test results, Jones said.

Jennifer Chase, a bus operator in Montgomery County, spoke about her experience of being told Tuesday morning before the press conference that she had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

While she awaits test results, she will have to stay in a hotel to avoid infecting her elderly mother.

“These costs that so many of us take on, we have to pay out of pocket,” Chase said.

The legislation also aims to protect workers when employers refuse to follow health mandates. It prohibits retaliation to workers who refuse to work under unsafe conditions, such as without adequate PPE or sanitation measures in place, and also provides protections to whistleblowers who report their companies for noncompliance.

The bill will be sponsored by Del. Dereck E. Davis, who represents the 25th District and chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, and Sen. Malcolm Augustine, who represents the 47th District.

Jones said the coalition decided to approach these two legislators due to their existing relationships with 1199SEIU and their track records of supporting labor rights issues in the past, such as Davis’s work in 2019 to pass a $15 minimum wage.

Davis said that one of the stipulations of the bill — that these rules would only be in effect during an emergency — prevents the legislation from placing too heavy of a burden on business owners, whom he said are also struggling to survive the pandemic.

“We’re all sensitive to that,” Davis said. “This is a partnership, and we have to look out for those folks.”

Both Davis and Augustine serve Prince George’s County, a majority-Black jurisdiction that was hit hard in the pandemic’s first months. Augustine said he feels passionately about this bill due to the high number of essential workers who live in his district.

Jones said she anticipates pushback against both the PPE and hazard pay requirements in the bill — even though she thinks the requirements listed are relatively conservative.

“I personally think $3 is not even enough to ask someone to risk their lives and the lives of their families,” she said.

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