Every year on April 28, Workers Memorial Day, the labor movement remembers workers who have been injured or killed on the job. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the day takes on a deeper meaning. AFT President Randi Weingarten describes the pandemic as one of the most significant workplace hazards in a generation.
“This Workers Memorial Day is like no other in modern times,” said Weingarten. “We’ve lost far too many people—including more than 300 of our AFT members, who sacrificed their health and safety to care for others.”
On April 27, the AFT held a town hall to honor our members and the work they have done to make a difference in the lives of others. There was a moment of silence as the names of members the AFT lost scrolled on the screen as part of the commemoration.
“We need to not only remember them but to fight for the living and for what we all want, which is safe workplaces and conditions in which we can all thrive,” said Weingarten. She was joined by AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel, Health Professionals and Allied Employees President Debbie White, and Detroit Federation of Teachers President Terrence Martin. They talked about what their members have experienced on the frontlines during the pandemic.
Hochadel, an AFT vice president, lifted the work of public employees during this crisis.
“We often hear that no one was more affected by COVID than our healthcare workers and educators, but public employees also responded to the community’s need for services,” said Hochadel. “Too often, our public employees go unappreciated.”
Hochadel noted that most public employees were designated essential workers and didn’t have the option of working from home. Despite their fears, they showed up every day to provide the government services their communities rely on. “As a result, hundreds became sick, and some died,” she said. “These members were not merely stories to make a point—they were parents, spouses, colleagues and friends; and they were people who sacrificed their lives by going to work.”
Even so, most states denied expanded sick leave coverage and hazard pay to their employees. “State and local government workers provide essential services so that our citizens have a safety net in a time of crisis,” she said. “This past year, that work was more important than ever; it’s a tragedy and disgrace that they were denied the same safety net that they provide others.”
In New Jersey, HPAE lost seven members to COVID-19, and White took a moment to recognize each of them.
“Exactly one year ago today, we were in the midst of the worst unmitigated disaster to ever hit the state of New Jersey,” said White, who is an AFT vice president. “Our hospitals were overrun, and healthcare workers struggled to handle the enormous burden of the pandemic.”
“The stage for this disaster was set long ago,” said White, referring to the lack of pandemic planning at the federal, state and local levels. The result was that hospitals were given the authority to handle COVID in whatever way they saw fit, she noted. “Many responded in a way that left our workers completely exposed and at risk for COVID.”
HPAE took action, connecting with members to keep them educated and informed, filing grievances and negotiating agreements to help them get the things they needed to do their jobs safely. “We were the most outspoken advocates for healthcare workers in our state,” said White.
HPAE filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and was able to get OSHA to conduct and complete 25 investigations, resulting in 25 sets of citations that resulted in fines. “We are not so focused on the fines, but the plan of action to corrections mandated in each citation, and we see some positive changes. We will continue to fight because we can’t ever let this happen again. We must learn from our mistakes, because if our workers aren’t safe, neither are their patients.”
Michigan has been hit hard by COVID-19, and it has been a tough time for everyone, said DFT’s Terrence Martin. “It has been a huge adjustment for our members, but I’m most proud of the way our members responded to this virus,” said Martin, who is an AFT vice president.
“Many now have a choice about whether they want to work face to face or not. My heart goes out to those who don’t have a choice,” he said. “They have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Martin acknowledged the support staff who have worked throughout the pandemic. “It was our paraprofessionals who were called to go from feeding children to feeding communities. They were there each and every day for the city of Detroit. I commended them for making that sacrifice.”
Detroit’s educators made a seamless transition to virtual learning, and they made phone calls and wellness visits to students as well, Martin said. “They went above and beyond what they were asked to do.”