Workers to Pa. lawmakers: Take risks to keep us safe and paid during COVID — and after

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 05: Hand sanitizer sits on a table during a news conference with healthcare workers at the National Nurses United offices on March 05, 2020 in Oakland, California. The National Nurses United held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control is not doing enough to help protect and test healthcare workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

*This story was updated to correct the number of Kelli Trent’s coworkers and to clarify that the State Police issue liquor law citations 

Workers, from unemployment claims processors to security guards and nursing home aides, spent an hour Monday describing the perils of working through the coronavirus pandemic.

The hearing, in front of the House Democratic Policy Committee, comes months after COVID-19 shuttered businesses and locked down the state. 

But workers still described myriad problems, such as spending their own wages on protective equipment, a lack of paid time off, and enforcement dead ends on state health orders.

“While many of the people followed the governor’s order to shelter in place, we worked,” Eve Carlton, a Philadelphia security officer, said.

Carlton, who is Black, also pointed out that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black and brown workers.

Women are also more frequently among the ranks of frontline workers. While they make up about 47 percent of the labor force, female employees are 52 percent of all essential workers.

According to an analysis by the New York Times, one in three jobs held by a woman have been deemed essential during the pandemic. Women’s outsized place in social work and health care jobs helps drive the discrepancy, the newspaper reported.

One of those workers was Kelli Trent, a Perry County mother of two who takes calls for a Mechanicsburg dental insurance provider.

When the virus started, Trent said her company decided employees could work remotely — if they acquired the equipment, such as MacBooks, to work remotely themselves.

Her union, Workers United, did negotiate six weeks of emergency paid leave for anyone who couldn’t afford the equipment.

Now, the company is forcing employees back to the office and is not requiring masks, in violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s health orders. Four employees have already tested positive for COVID-19, and nine others are in quarantine, out of a 24-person staff.*

Efforts to bring in state inspectors have failed, Trent added. She said a coworker who complained was referred by the Department of Health to Wolf’s office. From there, they were referred to the State Police, and finally to local police, who said there was nothing they could do.

“We need someone to enforce the policy,” Trent said.

In an email, Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said that workers are “encouraged to first communicate with their employer if they feel they are not being appropriately protected in their workplace,” before they reach out to law enforcement or the Department of Health through an online form.

Department of Health spokesperson Nate Wardle said that the department has so far received 60,000 complaints against businesses accused of violating health policies.

“We continue to work to educate businesses on why the current orders are in place, and take action when necessary,” Wardle said.

The department did not have any numbers on how many of those complaints have been resolved, Wardle said, due to the array of agencies enforcing Wolf’s orders.

Health Secretary Levine explains why Pa. ordered restaurants to limit capacity, but still won’t show the data to back it up

According to State Police data, the department has issued 55 warnings and no citations for violating Wolf’s health measures, such as mandatory masks in businesses, since April 19.

State police have also issued 339 warnings and one citation since July 1 to bars and restaurants with liquor licenses.*

There is not a database of local police citations, but Kensinger said that individual departments “have discretion whether to warn or cite a business for violations” on a “case-by-case basis,”

Those police actions would be filed against private employers. But similar health protections for public sector workers are a blind spot, said Service Employees International Union Local 668 president Steve Catanese. His union represents thousands of state and county human service employees who process SNAP or Medicaid benefits, among other tasks.

Earlier in the pandemic, many of the unions’ members said they were sent back to work in unsafe conditions, without PPE, and with unclear standards for sick leave.

Pennsylvania’s protections for public-sector workers are more than 60 years old. Unions are pushing for an update

But unlike private employers, who are covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, public sector workers in Pennsylvania have no workplace protections.

Such a proposal has been introduced repeatedly in the General Assembly, but despite bipartisan support, has not moved.

“When a lot of our public workforce, which was essential, were attempting to get basic protections during the coronavirus, they were asking for things like OSHA-level protection, without an actual legal right to it,” Catanese said.

He asked for lawmakers to “take bold risks” — from universal health care to expanded hazard pay — so service workers, already economically at-risk before COVID-19, aren’t forced to tread water after the pandemic.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly has passed a smorgasbord of legislation during the pandemic. They include a bill expanding open records laws; allowing notary publics to work remotely, and multiple proposals to reopen whole industries.

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

Republicans hinted that they might pass some workplace protections, such as a ban on firing someone who stays home to quarantine. But according to the Department of Labor and Industry, your employer could fire you for not showing up to work, regardless of circumstances.

Democrat Wolf and the Legislature also negotiated a plan to spend $2.6 billion in federal stimulus dollars. Included was $50 million in hazard pay grants, targeted at health care and service workers, that could raise one’s hourly pay by up to $3 for ten weeks this fall.

That pay is mostly directed at private sector workers. Last week, Catanese and SEIU 668 called for future federal aid to also cover essential public sector workers.

Another $1.3 billion in federal aid to Pennsylvania remains unspent. Negotiations in Washington D.C. between President Donald Trump, U.S. Senate Republicans, and Democratic U.S. House leadership over another round of federal COVID-19 aid are ongoing.