COVID-19 in Pa.: Federal, state lawmakers need to step up to protect frontline workers | Opinion

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

By Chris Good

As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread across the country in alarming numbers, forcing life as we know it to change dramatically overnight, it can no longer be business as usual for the Pennsylvania legislature when it comes to the pressing needs of working families.

Chris Good | contributed photo

I’ve been an SEIU Local 668 member since 2014, but prior to 2016 I was a pretty inactive member. I was content with my job working in unemployment compensation helping people navigate through the system who had lost their jobs.

I didn’t really see the need to be involved with all of the union activities. That changed during the winter of 2016, a few days before Thanksgiving.

Me and several hundreds of my coworkers found out we were going to be furloughed in 30 days, right before Christmas. Two service centers closed down, and another lost 80% of the workforce. The remaining unemployment workers suddenly became overloaded, and people had to wait weeks and even months for benefits.

I realized it was time to come off the sidelines and get involved. With support from the union, we organized lobby days, speaking with legislators about the importance of the unemployment insurance program. We staged rallies and other actions aimed at forcing the state legislature to act.

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We fought for measures that would create more stability in the UC office, while promoting other bi-partisan measures to ensure worker protections during that crisis.

Three years later, we now find ourselves in a similar dilemma. Workers are being laid off by the thousands due to the spread of COVID-19, without the kinds of protections that will ensure they can still provide for themselves and their families. Getting sick reminds us that no matter our background or political party, at the end of the day we are all just human beings.

That’s why we’re calling on the Pennsylvania Legislature to take immediate action to implement any and all legislative measures to expand healthcare access to protect front-line workers like nurses and grocery store workers.

We need economic relief for working families and protections for essential workers. People who are already struggling should not have to go under because of this pandemic.

We must also protect our values, our safety and our collective voices during this crisis. We must ensure that despite this national pandemic that everyone has the ability to be counted during the 2020 census.

Every voter in the state should be mailed a ballot so that they can vote by mail. We need to expand the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to investigate discrimination  against Pennsylvania’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

There is much more that this coalition is demanding and you can learn more by visiting our website and reading about the American Working Families Relief Action Plan.

It cannot be business as usual for the Pennsylvania Legislature while workers on the front line of this crisis are being exposed to COVID-19, with no legislative protections in place. While hundreds of thousands of workers are being laid off, it cannot be business as usual in Harrisburg.

Cases of COVID-19 are continuing to surface, and experts predict that it will get dramatically worse before it gets any better. How can it be business as usual when Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens are facing not only the crisis of a pandemic, but the uncertainty of whether they can afford the cost of treatment, or the lack of accessibility to COVID-19 testing.

I realized four years ago that I had a responsibility to fight for not only myself, but also my family and co-workers. Tragedy hit home and I could no longer sit on the sidelines and wait for others to fight for the things that were vital to my survival.

On behalf of working families and individuals throughout Pennsylvania and across the country, we call on our legislators to do the right thing for its citizens — to do away with partisan politics and put the well-being of workers first — the very workers who drive our economy and make our lives better.

We are unions, advocates, faith leaders, students, and community members whose work serves millions of people throughout the state. Our work exposes us and puts us at an extremely high risk of contracting COVID-19. Join us in demanding bold action now, to ensure that these fair and just demands are met.

Chris Good is a statewide Executive Board Member of SEIU Local 668.