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Rebuking Wheeler, EPA Workforce Resists ‘Back To Office’ Order

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Hundreds of telecommuting employees at the Environmental Protection Agency are in open revolt. Agency head Andrew R. Wheeler this week drew their ire for what they say is a deadly and racist order to return to federal buildings despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

They refused Monday to be bullied back into a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19 just to buttress the president's foolish behavior. And they noted that such dangerous directives appear aimed only at the EPA, an agency whose mission Trump loathes.

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Reopening Of VA Hospitals May Endanger Nurses

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Nurses warn of needless sickness and death if Veterans Affairs hospitals reopen without enough personal protective equipment.

The VA employs 342,000 workers, more than a fifth of the government's civilian workforce. If nurses and other healthcare workers contract COVID-19, the coronavirus will spread to others, including veterans.

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Women And Minorities Bear Brunt Of Trump’s Pandemic Malfeasance

Reprinted with permission from DCReport.

Low-paid women and people of color across the country, who were in dire economic straits long before the coronavirus crisis, are being pushed to the absolute brink. These marginalized workers are now essential foot soldiers on the front lines of the global pandemic, taking great risks for little reward.

For the last couple of weeks, Candice Martinez, who cleans and sterilizes rooms at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, has been working 12- and 16-hour days, taking on extra shifts to make up for the medical center's short staffing.

Privacy regulations prevent workers whose job is to sterilize rooms from knowing much about the people they're cleaning up after. Only haphazardly are signs placed on doors meant to indicate what kinds of Personal Protection Equipment [PPE] are required upon entering. Martinez never really knows what she's walking into.

'Every morning is waking up and realizing I still have symptoms and wondering if it's going to get worse.'

Now Martinez is isolated at home after falling ill and testing positive for COVID-19.

"Every morning is waking up and realizing I still have symptoms and wondering if it's going to get worse," Martinez recently told reporters during a telephone press conference arranged by the Service Employees International Union.

No Equipment

Those scarce N95 masks — the ones that block 95 percent of tiny airborne particles as small 0.3 microns — are supposed to be essential pieces of PPE for hospital staffers and other frontline workers confronting COVID-19 head-on.

Martinez says she never got one on the job.

She said personal protection equipment or PPE "is not always offered to us —[administrators] hold onto those masks if they have them," she added.

Hospitals are now quickly turning into "death traps," according to Kim Smith, a Northwestern patient care technician.

Personal care technicians "are being told to return to work even though they were possibly exposed," Smith told reporters during the same teleconference. "Nurses are paid three- to four-times the hourly rate. You have offered us nothing. Our lives are just as important. Nobody chose this field to lose their life — they chose it to improve life."

Hospitals Evil?

"Are hospitals evil?" Smith said. "I think they forgot what they were made for. I think they forgot about the people whom they service. I think they forgot about the communities that help them thrive. So, when we go back and say we want a union – we need a union. It's the only way to get our voices heard!"

Wellington Thomas, an emergency room tech at Chicago's Loretto Hospital, said his is among the first faces seen by people seeking emergency room care. Colleagues are afraid to come into work now because PPE is not available or hard to come by — and communication between administrators and staff is poor.

"Workers are in the dark about sick patients," Thomas said, adding that the virus "is spreading like a wildfire through the hospital. It's moving around everywhere. It's not isolated. Leaders are not communicating."

Fear of Job Loss

Connecticut rest stop workers along I-95 are afraid of contracting COVID-19, too — but many are also too afraid to stay home even if they have symptoms for fear of losing their jobs. Some have already been terminated after speaking out against poor training, reduced shifts, lack of paid sick days and insufficient PPE.

Until last week, Mario Franco was the night manager at a northbound McDonald's rest stop in Darien. He'd been on the job for more than 25 years, 20 of those years working alongside his late wife who died four years ago, after passing out and hitting her head in the backroom of the store on a "busy, hot summer day."

"McDonald's only paid for the headstone on her grave — nothing more," Franco said during another teleconference with frontline workers.

Fast-Food Firings

The latest stimulus package, which extends a one-time payment of up to $1,200 to those earning under $75,000 payment, gifted Corporate America hundreds of billions of dollars to ride out the coronavirus crisis. The windfall hasn't stopped fast food chains along I-95 from terminating low-wage earners in the midst of a global pandemic, however.

Franco was abruptly fired along with the entire night crew.

"Management did not give us an opportunity to move shifts or giving us at least a day of work — they did not respect our dedication and experience," he added.

Andrea Hernandez worked at the Darien rest stop for three years — a period of time where she said she never saw a sick day or medical leave. When she gave birth last fall, Hernandez said she had to use her vacation days just to have some paid time off with her newborn. According to Hernandez, the only PPE she and her co-workers have received during the pandemic are "the same gloves we always used in the kitchen."

"The coronavirus is causing a tremendous crisis around the world, but the problems it's causing at McDonald's isn't new — just more dangerous," she said via teleconference.

Ascha Porter is a mother of two. She lost her job at a southbound Subway rest stop in Fairfield last week.

Financial Worries

"These corporations are getting government relief and they can support us through this time — but they're not," she recently told reporters via teleconference. "I'm worried about the next time I have to go grocery shopping or pay a bill. I understand our nation didn't have a plan [to confront the pandemic], but something should be done. Give us our basic rights — [corporations] have the money — they can afford it."

"Where is the relief" for ordinary workers, she asked. "We're stuck in a loop right now."

Arcadio Mejia, a certified nursing assistant at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, is one of the 400,000 Temporary Protected Status [TPS] holders, the majority of them living in the United States for more than 20 years. They could face deportation in January should the Trump administration succeed in terminating that program.

Mejia emigrated from El Salvador and has been on the job for 12 years. He worries about what will happen should he lose his Temporary Protected Status. He also fears his job caring for patients has exposed him to COVID-19, yet he can't get tested.

Exposed But Still Working

"I was exposed to a COVID-19 patient and I'm still working," he told me this week. "I asked my clinical coordinator and they told me if I don't have any symptoms, they're not going to do a test."

That means that if Mejia is infected, he could be passing the virus on to others in the hospital, both patients being treated for other ailments, their visitors and healthcare professionals

After working extra hours at the hospital during the coronavirus outbreak, Mejia wonders why he also has to fear being deported in January.

"I have given so much to this country and the government makes me feel like a criminal," he added. "Why is Trump continuing to take away my rights despite being a good citizen?"

Rena Rodriquez was a physician in her home country of El Salvador and now works as a health educator in North Carolina to support herself and two children. She, too, is experiencing the incredible stress of working without proper PPE and possibly being deported.

"I'm here to serve, I'm here to help the United States," Rodriquez recently told reporters during an emergency teleconference with TPS holders. "We are exposing ourselves in this situation, we know about the risk — but we are still helping."

Greg Kelley is the first African American to lead SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri & Kansas, — the largest local union in the Midwest. Indeed, he told me, COVID-19 is disproportionately pushing Black and Latino workers "to the brink."

"Lower-wage workers historically have not been considered," Kelley added. "[They have been] disregarded in a way that we, as a society, cannot allow to continue."

But continue it does, with no shortage of elected officials wagging their fingers at Corporate America and urging them to do the right thing for workers.

Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey sent a stern missive to Vice President Mike Pence and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, imploring the federal government to "ensure that all frontline workers are valued and protected."

‘Essential’ Workers At Amazon And Walmart Protest Unsafe Conditions

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Low-wage earners helping to keep the nation’s top retailers operating during the COVID-19 crisis are balking at the Trump administration’s bid to return to business as usual by Easter.

Frontline retail workers at Amazon and Walmart forced to work without the benefit of face masks, gloves or hand sanitizer are already afraid they are being exposed to COVID-19. They are calling on corporate CEOs to temporarily shutter their workplaces for thorough disinfection.

Earlier this month, Congress exempted large corporations including Walmart and Amazon from legislation mandating businesses provide emergency paid sick and family leave.

“I do understand the need for workers to be in the store in order for people who need medicine; for people who need supplies who have children — but there’s got be something done to help protect us,” 19-year Walmart worker Cyndi Murray told me this week.

‘Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.’

“Maybe at a point, shut down — sanitize the registers,” the Hyattsville, Maryland resident added. “Do they realize how many people come into these little self-checkouts? We have 10 registers inside one of our self-checkouts. Do you know how close people are to each other?”

Amazon warehouse worker Monica Moody, 32, told me the coronavirus pandemic has her and her North Carolina co-workers “freaked out.”

Facilities Need Cleaning

“People are probably coming to work sick and not know it,” Moody said. “We all want the same thing — we need to see the facility shut down temporarily, so it can be cleaned. And we need to be paid. Shut down with full pay.”

The last few weeks on the job have been “a blur” for El Paso Walmart employee Sanjuana Arreola.

“Customers have been rushing into the stores to stock up for weeks in isolation — rice, canned goods, and water — I’m scared,” the married mother of three said. “As a Walmart associate, I don’t get to practice social distancing. Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.”

Stacy Rowback is a struggling part-time Walmart employee from Upstate New York with a 14-month-old baby girl to care for back at home. The new mom says Walmart has provided the employees where she works with zero training and protection.

Guarding The Toilet Paper

“They’ve not changed anything in my store,” Rowback told me. “The only thing they are doing is guarding toilet paper.”

All the workers quoted above are part of the Paid Leave for All campaign — a broad coalition of organizations urging Congress to pass a stimulus package that closes loopholes exempting both very large enterprises with 500 or more employees and smaller companies with fewer than 50 workers — and extends family sick leave to all American workers.

Forcing People To Work Sick

“Our nation is only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us,” said Wendy Chun-Hoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work and an executive team member of the Paid Leave for All campaign. “We cannot stop a pandemic if we force people to come to work sick. Walmart has gotten away with denying sick leave, artificially keeping [employee] work hours down, for years.”

Despite increasing deaths and more confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide — the country’s chief executive, on March 22, sent out a tweet saying, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!”

Trump has since made further declarations indicating his administration’s eagerness to drop the social distancing Americans have been practicing the last couple of weeks to quell the economic impact of the coronavirus.

“Yeah — no. That’s not gonna work,” Moody said. “You can’t beat this thing without social distancing. If you want to ease back into it and let everybody go back to work — then just be prepared to get right back onto lockdown.”

Neither Walmart or Amazon responded to requests for comment.

‘Sanitize The Registers’

“Shut down,” a frustrated Murray continued. “Sanitize these registers, these keypads where people stick in their debit cards. What about the baskets? Sanitize them.”

According to Moody, three people from the nightshift where she works have already tested positive for COVID-19.

“I understand we’re the frontline and people are depending on us, [but] we’re human, too,” she said. “We need to be safe, too. Shut it down quick for two weeks and I’ll feel a lot safer going to work. I’m not asking for a permanent closing — I’m asking for it to be cleaned and safe for me to go to work.”

At $11.44 an hour, Arreola says she barely earns enough to put food on her table — let alone stock up for an emergency like the patrons who have stripped grocery and drug store shelves across the country.

“We’re making sure Walmart customers have everything they need — but who’s looking out for us?” she said. “We have to do this before it’s too late.”

Joe Maniscalco is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has spent the last decade covering labor unions and workplace justice issues.