By Samaria Bailey
PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of local workers and union officials demanded better personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay and protection from layoffs at a rally outside of City Hall on Monday.
The Labor Day rally was organized and supported by several unions including AFSCME DC 33 Local 427 (Sanitation), AFSCME DC 33 Local 403 (Highways), AFSCME DC 33 Local 394 (Water), AFSCME DC 33 Local 1637 (911/Fire Operators & PPD) BMWED-IBT local 3012 Railroad workers, Teamsters Local 623, AFT Local 2026 (CCP staff), TAUP-RAFT (Temple Adjuncts & Professors), and AFSCME rank and file city workers.
“The purpose of this Labor Day rally was to bring attention to all the hard work that laborers in the city of Philadelphia are doing. We’ve been putting our lives on the line since the start of [the COVID-19 pandemic] and we would like to be recognized by the city and have our demands met for proper PPE, hazardous pay and no layoffs,” said Terrill Haigler, a member of DC 33, Local 427 and a rally organizer.
“Some of the PPE that we got is not adequate. Whereas some people need KN95, we might get something of less quality. We need high quality PPE and we have not been getting any hazard pay. When it comes to hazard pay, we need some more incentive for putting your life on the line and possibly taking something home to your family. As we are in hazardous times and we do hazardous jobs, we deserve hazard pay.”
Haigler recently raised more than $30,000 by selling t-shirts, so they could buy improved “PPE” and “cleaning supplies,” a gesture of how dire the sanitation workers need has become.
Omar Salaam, business agent for Local 427, District Council 33, said the initial PPE provided two weeks into the pandemic was and remains subpar.
“We took it upon ourselves to star providing these things because our employees needed them. We didn’t have time to say ‘we are going to wait for the city to decide to do something.’ As of late, they have become more proactive but a lot of things are lacking,” Salaam said. “A lot of the problem with the PPE the city supplied is it just didn’t do the job. It was bottom of the barrel quality.”
Salaam also stressed hazard pay, saying this is an urgent demand that they’ve pushed for, along with better protective equipment, prior to COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s something that’s long overdue,” Salaam said. “Once we get past COVID, the employees of the Philadelphia sanitation department are still going to pick up hazardous materials. Our job was hazardous prior to COVID. COVID showed the job sanitation workers have done and they deserve hazard pay,” he said.
“[It’s] to compensate our people for the job they are doing. They risk their lives every day. A lot of people don’t make it to retirement and those that do don’t live that long afterwards. Better PPE might increase longevity of life, but if they are going to work and they are going to be in these types of hazardous situations, they should be compensated for it.”
Other workers such as Leonard Brown, of DC 33, Local 403, (streets and highways union) agreed. He said workers need face shields and better body protective gear. Their facilities, he said, are also, not “PPE efficient,” as there are no protective shields for the secretaries who work the desks.
“The city does not care about its workers,” he said. “The only thing they care about is you coming to work.”
Brown said their appeals for improved working conditions have not been met with a definitive response.
In a statement, city spokesperson Lauren Cox said the demands “have been addressed at multiple points since COVID-19 first came to Philadelphia in March, and several are based on claims that are wholly untrue.”
Citing the distribution of reinforced face masks, full body jumpsuits, gloves and protective glasses, Cox said, “despite recent claims, PPE materials are in abundant supply and are continually distributed to City workers in the field as needed. We continue to do everything we can to procure PPE for all of the city’s frontline staff, including sanitation workers.” Regarding hazard pay, Cox said the city would need assistance to support it.
“We sympathize with calls to provide additional pay for frontline workers who continue to put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “However, any proposal for hazard pay—for the sanitation team or any city workers—would need to be supported with outside funding from state or federal sources.
“As with many other municipalities, Philadelphia is facing one of the greatest financial downturns the city has ever seen. As a reminder, the city did ensure contract extensions for all four municipal unions during the COVID pandemic, despite the financial challenges we face. That one-year extension provided all represented workers with a percentage raise, and in most cases, a one-time bonus.”
Monica Robinson, a secretary/treasurer for Local 810, which represents employees of the First Judicial District District, and the vice president of communications for the Coalition of Labor Union Women, said she stood in solidarity with the workers and urged them to use their voting power to get their demands met.
“Unfortunately, we are here today because our union siblings are not receiving the protections, the benefits or the safety equipment they need and deserve,” Robinson said. “They should not have to raise money to buy PPE, just so they can continue to do a job that provides a necessary service to everyone in Philadelphia.
“Hazard pay for hazardous work is a must. It is not unreasonable to demand PPE. It is not unreasonable to demand hazard pay and it is not unreasonable to demand no layoffs. No one should have to make a choice between their paycheck and their life. We fight back by calling our senators and demand Congress pass the HEROES ACT. We fight back by being registered to vote and having a voting plan in place.”
Samaria Bailey is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.