In a forum sponsored by the Labor Education Center of UMass Dartmouth and the Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council frontline workers gave a personal view of the difficulties facing them as the Covid-19 pandemic puts them and their families in unremitting danger.
Workers from the grocery, nursing home, and hospital industries gave first person accounts of the challenges they face performing essential work with the ever-present danger of infection threatening. Unions representing the workers explained efforts to protect their members and – indirectly – the general public from the virus.
Dana Natale, an employee of Stop and Shop and a member of UFCW Local 328, was emphatic that working in a supermarket poses a myriad of challenges to workers. “One of the challenges is just understanding customers now that we have masks on.”, pointing out that as the heat of the summer intensifies, and number of shoppers increases “with the masks and the workload we need more breaks.”
UFCW Local 328 President Tim Melia supported Dana in reporting that the range of issues has been endless. “Whether its PPE, social distancing, and store capacity issues or legislative issues like hazard pay, our member have numerous needs…the pandemic does not take days off!” He added that his organization is especially focused on extending hazard pay through state legislation. “We are pushing very hard to pass H4745 at the State House so that hazard pay will be extended for as long as the pandemic warrants.”
Amanda Paul, a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford and a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, spoke of the fear and corresponding courage of health care workers. “The nurses union makes it possible for our voices to be heard. As a group we are strong when we discuss issues with management.”
Donna Kelly-Williams, President of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, explained that even now, 100 days after the threat of the virus became known, nurses are fighting for Personal Protective Equipment. “It’s a horror that the scarcity of PPE caused the CDC to lower the standard for masks and other equipment.” she said. “We are fighting every week for better protective equipment.” One of the MNA’s most important priorities is passage of the Occupational Presumption Legislation now pending in the Legislature.
Florent Fervillien, a nursing home worker and member of SEIU1199, was infected with Covid-19 and recovered. “It was great to go back to work to put a smile on the face of residents” in his workplace. He added that quality of care is of paramount importance in his industry.
Vice President Jerry Fishbein of SEIU1199 took the opportunity to call out the serious racial issues that afflict the country and the region. “Nothing we do or say in these times can make sense without a reckoning with the scourge of racism. We as a movement need to confront it in every space, in every setting, and put it at the forefront of everything we do.” In discussing nursing home workers and their concerns regarding Covid-19 Fishbein said, “Nursing homes face terrible staff shortages that make the threat of the virus a dreadful everyday reality for our members.” He continued, “Without the assistance of family members who have understandably been barred from visiting their loved ones, these shortages have created incredible pressure on our nursing home members. Add in child-care and family concerns and our members are really up against it.” he said.
Greater Southeastern Massachusetts President Lisa Lemieux close the Forum by reinforcing the view that every conversation should be started with the issue of inequality. “We have heard over the last few months that this virus does not discriminate – but we know this is far from the truth – because we know that women and our minority communities do not have access to equal and affordable healthcare.” she said. “We can no longer be silent and say nothing. Covid-19 is actually shining a light on the inequities.” she added. “Everybody is talking about beating Covid-19 but what a happens after Covid-19? Back to an unbalanced society?”