At the first of several Essential Worker Hearings being held across the country, many essential workers from North Carolina met with elected officials Thursday about the health and safety concerns they face daily in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—and proposed a worker-led solution.
Joined by state General Assembly members at "Essential Not Expendable: A Frontline Worker Hearing on Health & Safety in North Carolina," the essential workers spoke personally about the urgent need for workers to have a voice and a decision-making role in creating real workplace protections. While OSHA has issued safety recommendations, such as meatpacking companies assembling physical barriers and enabling social distancing, too often they go unenforced.
The workers proposed an Essential Worker Health & Safety Council to include frontline workers who would participate at the decision-making table with government officials and employers to set safety standards across essential industries.
Jamesia Covington of Fayetteville was working at the Sanderson Farms chicken processing plant when news hit about the need for social distancing. "Working on the line, you had a worker on each side of you and you were facing workers across from you. There was no way to stay 6 feet apart. And lots of people weren't wearing face masks because it’s uncomfortable to have them on for 8 hours, so people start to take them down."
Beside the company taking workers' temperatures and putting up screens in the breakrooms, the work went on as usual. But then there was confusion and anxiety. "We had some cases of COVID at the plant," Jamesia said. "Word traveled through the workers that a couple had COVID. But the company lied to us and told us there were no cases. They didn't tell us because they didn't want us to quit. ...So I quit the chicken plant and got a job at Circle K."
With no gloves, customers not wearing masks and no cleaning products, she found her new job to be just as worrisome, especially with two kids at home. "So I was forced to quit that job. I want to work, but I need to make sure I'm safe."
Keenan Harton and his co-workers at Bland Landscaping in Durham had similar experiences. It wasn't practical to stay six-feet apart from one other, they weren't given masks, and on two separate occasions, they found out co-workers had COVID and they were never notified.
He testified: "Essential workers need to be included in the health and safety policies at our jobs. We're the ones who know what is really happening at our jobs and what we need to be safe. I want to see the state of North Carolina create a Health & Safety Council that would include essential workers from all these frontline industries. ...We need you, our elected officials, to step up and help set up something like this."
Rita Blalock with McDonald’s in Raleigh told her story of having to speak to the press not once but twice to pressure the multi-billion-dollar company to provide masks and drive-thru screens. The first time worked, she said, although "the masks they gave us are so thin I can blow right through it," but then she was transferred to a different store. "My new store is inside a Walmart, right next to the door. So we have thousands of customers walking right up past the counter. And once again, I had to go out and do an interview about how we didn’t have screens! And then they gave us some screens. We shouldn’t have to talk to the press, just to get the most basic protections from our employer!"
She testified: "We need better safety gear, paid sick days, and hazard pay. Pay us $15 an hour and double it during this crisis! I want to tell our elected officials: Workers need to be involved in coming up with the safety standards at our stores. We are the experts. Companies like McDonald’s won’t do it unless you force them. So we need to have North Carolina set up a better way for workers’ voices to be heard. Worker’s health is public health. If we aren’t safe, it puts everyone at risk!"
In response, Representative Zach Hawkins said, “If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it has shown us that working people are holding our society on their backs. The pandemic has exposed the gap between who is provided healthcare and a living wage and who is not. ...I stand with workers today and every day. Workers deserve to be involved in the policy that impacts their lives to help build the North Carolina we can all be proud of.”