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North Carolina essential workers demand input on safety rules
Employees want a say in creating policy
Published Tuesday, June 30, 2020 7:37 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Frontline workers in essential North Carolina businesses ranging from supermarkets to childcare are demanding greater work safety standards during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donielle Prophete would rather not risk her life for work.

Prophete, and a member of the Communications Workers of America who works at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, said essential workers are unduly exposed to coronavirus infection and should have greater say in workplace health and safety. Jobs like baggage handling, she insists, can be dangerous, but frontline employees don’t have commensurate protections.

“Before COVID-19, airline workers were fighting to have a seat at the table as it pertains to our work conditions,” Prophete said last week during a virtual town hall of North Carolina essential workers. “Our workers have filed so many OSHA complaints. But the only time we see OSHA come out and really investigate is when we have a death. We don’t want our coworkers to die. So, we need a voice at the table.”

Prophete was one of a dozen workers in essential industries ranging from child care to transportation demanding input on workplace safety standards as part of “Essential Not Expendable: Frontline Worker Hearing on Health & Safety in North Carolina.” The COVID-19 pandemic, they contend, has put them at unnecessary risk of infection without consideration of their wellbeing or compensation for hazards they face. They’re lobbying for creation of a Health & Safety Council to address their concerns.

“It’s necessary for workers to be involved in setting safety standards,” said Faith Alexander, a Certified Nursing Assistant who contracted COVID-19 at Cape Fear Valley Hospital in Fayetteville. “A council should be set up so workers from every essential industry can have a say about what we need to be safe instead of leaving decisions to someone who sits behind a desk and doesn’t have a clue about what we deal with every day.”

Fast-food worker Rita Blaylock of Blaylock, an activist with NC Raise Up/Fight for $15, said corporate interests run counter to the safety of employees, especially those in low-wage jobs who are left to risk their health with inadequate protection, lack of social distancing and no paid sick days.

“McDonald’s didn’t give us masks or shields,” Blalock said. “I had to strike to get them. I did it, and I’m proud of it. But we shouldn’t have to fight for this stuff. McDonald’s, this is your company – you’re making a million in profit every day. You should’ve already had those shields up.”

Said Darrion Smith, a therapeutic support specialist at Central Regional Hospital in Butner, and Eastern Region vice president of UE Local 150, which represents public service workers:  “When this pandemic first started, workers were totally in the dark about what was happening and how we would move forward safely as a hospital. You have people in offices making decisions about people who are on the front line. This is a major problem.”

Because many frontline workers in essential industries are people of color, advocates also see the issue as a matter of racial justice.

“Many Black and brown workers, we are being asked to work in unsafe conditions that demonstrate how little corporations care about our lives,” said Sheree Allen, an unemployed childcare worker who moderated the hearing. “Black lives matter. Essential workers’ lives matter.”

Labor advocates want lawmakers to take an active role in protecting workers on the job. North Carolina is in Phase 2 of reopening its economy, but essential workers don’t have the option of staying home, said Keenan Horton, a landscaper who challenged the General Assembly to take action on workforce protection.

“Our safety issues are not bearable, he said. “We need you to press some of these industries and actually create this Health & Safety Council and give us workers power.”


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