Essential workers need a bill of rights

They may be heroes, but they’re not getting hero treatment

THIS YEAR, Labor Day arrives in the crossfire of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and a reckoning for racial justice throughout America, laying bare how vital working people are to keeping every person safe, secure, healthy, and fed; how economic safety nets and investments in the public good are critical; and just how deeply the inequities in our society run.

Months ago, our nation established a newfound appreciation for workers who have finally been recognized as “essential.”  We saw billboards and commercials praising every-day workers as “heroes,” but they still do not receive anything close to the hero treatment that they deserve.  Educators have fought to ensure that the return to school this fall is safe and equitable for school staff, students, and working caregivers. Construction workers are pushing for meaningful safety protocol enforcement. Grocery workers have taken action to ensure proper social distancing in stores and to fight for hazard pay as their employers have seen record profits. Health care workers and first responders have had to battle the pandemic on the front lines without the proper protective equipment.

It’s simple. If the workers who make our economy run aren’t healthy and secure, then our economy isn’t healthy and secure. Especially in the absence of any leadership or plan from the Trump administration, we need Massachusetts leaders to walk the walk when it comes to our workers, and not just talk the talk.

Essential workers need a bill of rights. They deserve hazard pay for the dangerous and critical work they are performing for the public. Everyone agrees on the importance of people with symptoms staying home from work and school, but that should come with the guarantee that nobody will lose their job or the ability to feed their families should they need to stay home.

Essential workers here in Massachusetts, like many of their counterparts in other states, deserve a presumption that if they contract COVID-19 they did so in the line of duty so they are covered by workers compensation. Workers need a reliable place to turn to if they think their workplaces are unsafe, and they need protection from employer retaliation for whistleblowing.

We need comprehensive data collection on the infection rates of workers — by occupation, industry, and employer — which are crucial data points to identify new outbreaks and guide future responses to protect these workers and the public they serve.  And we need science, workers, and occupational safety experts to guide how our workplaces and economy reopens, definitely not CEOs.

Massachusetts has the highest unemployment rate in the country. While working people are lining up at food banks and being laid off from their jobs, the rich keep getting richer as large corporations and their shareholders grow their fortunes. We recognize the budget deficits being faced by governments, but budget cuts that lay off workers and cut off public services are exactly the wrong response. They only worsen the effects of this downturn and impair our economic recovery, causing further harm to the people already disproportionately impacted by this pandemic – namely people of color, immigrants, and low-income communities.

This pandemic demonstrates the fundamental purpose of government. We need to invest in the short-term while laying the foundation for a strong and equitable future that also prepares us for the next crisis. Billions of dollars in new state revenue options are within reach by eliminating several of the largest and most wasteful inequities in our state tax code. These new revenue options include the passage of the Fair Share Amendment and taxing a portion of the offshore profits of multinational corporations (Global Intangible Low Taxed Income).

To achieve economic justice, we must also stand together and actively fight for racial justice in our workplaces, our homes, and our communities. We know that good policing and racial justice aren’t mutually exclusive and both are crucial to creating a fair society anchored in equity and investments in the public good. Working people must have the conversations with each other needed to forge a common understanding of the history, meaning, and impact of structural racism in our country, and to come up with new ways that we as a labor movement can strive to put an end to it.  It’s also important to recognize that many workers who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic are predominantly black and brown and people of color. The COVID-19 crisis did not create these inequities; it has exacerbated and put a magnifying glass upon them.

There are bills filed in our Legislature that we’ve been working on for years that help create lasting, comprehensive, and systemic change that challenges institutional racism and achieves economic fairness for working people, especially amidst a pandemic that disproportionately hurts people of color and women. We need to pass the Wage Theft bill to address the more than $700 million each year stolen from mostly Black and Brown workers in the form of unpaid wages. We need to pass emergency paid sick time to protect the mostly low-income workers forced to choose between going to work sick during a pandemic or losing their ability to support their family. And we need legislation that provides every driver in Massachusetts with a valid license, as essential workers who pay their taxes and keep our state afloat deserve to feel safe on the roads regardless of their immigration status.

Meet the Author
Everyone has a stake in ensuring that the workers we all depend on are secure and healthy, and we will continue to fight for an equitable and just Commonwealth that truly values the workers who are the backbone of our society.

Steven Tolman is the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.