As Republicans push business reopenings, workers wonder what’s in store for them

By: - April 17, 2020 6:30 am

Even as the world has ground to a halt, Danielle Quillen has been hard at work.

The 28-year old works as a security guard and is a union member in the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. 

The offices are mostly empty, but she still faithfully works at the front desk of a downtown Philadelphia commercial building.

She doesn’t have any protective equipment to sanitize her workspace or limit her exposure to germs.

“I don’t have a mask, I don’t have gloves, I don’t have hand sanitizer,” Quillen said on a conference call Wednesday.

And if Pennsylvania began to loosen business closings, she’s worried that greeting employees and visitors back to work in such conditions would be a “death sentence.”

Quillen’s reaction was echoed by other workers and labor leaders, as Harrisburg lawmakers pushed to get some of Pennsylvania’s almost 1.4 million newly unemployed workers back on the job. 

And as Republican leadership in the state House and Senate championed rebuilding the economy, they also pledged that, in the future, they would pass workplace protections to protect the essential employers who continue to labor.

Gov. Tom Wolf has already promised to veto measures to reopen business during the pandemic, which has spread to all 67 counties and killed more than 700 Pennsylvanians.

But two proposals passed this week were still greeted with derision from state labor leaders. 

Darrin Kelly, president of the Pittsburgh-area Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council called the move “lunacy” in a statement on Tuesday.

“Those politicians need to wake the hell up and recognize the magnitude of this crisis. People are dying,” Kelly said. “Our frontline workers are risking their lives to save others. More than a million Pennsylvanians have been laid off. This is not a time to play games with our lives and livelihoods.”

But it’s not just labor brass raising concerns. Karina Santana, a 42-year old Allentown resident and school custodian, told the Capital-Star that citizens need to be better educated on social distancing.

She recognizes she is lucky, since the General Assembly in March passed legislation to allow all school employees to be paid through the rest of the school year, despite Wolf ordering all schools closed through June.

But Santana, a single mother caring for two, fears infection when she goes out to run errands. 

“Bodegas are being bombarded with customers and the person inside the store is not wearing a mask,” Santana told the Capital-Star.

With some Pennsylvanians not following social distancing even under Wolf’s orders, she was concerned that a move to reopen businesses could further confuse citizens.

Some of Santana’s concerns might be addressed in an executive action by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration Wednesday.

In an order signed by Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, businesses must now provide masks to employees. The order also mandates that customers wear masks, and that businesses offer special hours for at-risk individuals to shop by themselves.

Strict enforcement doesn’t seem likely. Wolf brushed off using the state police to ensure compliance during a Thursday press call, saying that the order was only a guidance.

“We’re asking retailers to use their judgment in applying these guidelines,” Wolf said.

He expressed hope that providing masks and other safety precautions would let business attract both customers and retain workers during the pandemic.

Neighboring New York and New Jersey, led by Democratic governors, have already imposed  similar masking orders; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, made a similar order on store hours.

But with the backing of business leaders, The GOP-controlled House and Senate passed two separate proposals to reopen businesses over Wolf’s orders.

Only a handful of Republicans opposed the measure, including Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, who represents Horsham, Montgomery, Lower Gwynedd and Upper Dublin townships.

In an email, Stephens said that the townships he represents have had more than 200 cases of the coronavirus, while 14 people have died.

“While I believe some additional businesses could open safely, I believe we must allow the medical experts to guide when and how quickly we reopen our businesses in Montgomery County,” Stephens told the Capital-Star. “My priority right now is working to minimize the number of deaths we see here by encouraging people to remain home and ensuring our providers have the equipment they need to stay safe.” 

Working in a bipartisan way, the General Assembly did take one step to aid health care workers. In late March, lawmakers approved $50 million in spending to buy medical equipment and supplies to help patients and protect workers.

How much further the Republican majority General Assembly will go is as of yet unclear. But some discussions are already underway.

The General Assembly passed a bill to let police officers, fire fighters, and other public safety personnel get worker’s compensation for catching COVID-19 on the job.

As of Monday, 211 first responders and health care workers with a condition linked to coronavirus have filed for worker’s compensation in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

Democrats also tried to guarantee wide labor protections for health care, grocery, warehouse and all other workers at essential businesses Tuesday, including a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave and mandatory protective equipment.

He added that if the legislature would act to protect “six figure public servants worth every dime” like police officers, the General Assembly could also protect service and health care workers.

“These workers are in the breach,” Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said. “They keep our supply lines going, they keep America fed.”

But the measures were defeated in party line votes. House Republican Whip Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told fellow Republicans to vote against the measure because “these issues will be taken up in subsequent bills by the legislature.”

Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Republican Caucus, confirmed that internal discussions were ongoing to, for example, prevent businesses from firing employees for abiding by stay-at-home orders or other quarantine measures.

But when such measures would be passed was not yet clear.

“We will continue to engage with our members, and our colleagues from the other side of the aisle on these issues,” Straub said in an email.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.