WASHINGTON, DC – The emergency sick-leave bill now pending in the Senate to help American workers get through the coronavirus epidemic is a good first step but “doesn’t go far enough,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees leaders and members said in a telephone press conference Mar. 16.
“We are in a crisis,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said. “What’s important is keeping this country safe and healthy, and preventing economic collapse.” Public-sector workers are “ready to step up,” he added, but “we need support.”
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by the House by a 363-40 vote Mar. 14, would require employers to grant two weeks of paid sick leave to workers exposed to or infected with the COVID-19 virus—but it would exempt those with more than 500 workers, and those with fewer than 50 could apply for a hardship exemption.
“I don’t understand how this could help,” Dalia Thornton, AFSCME’s director of research and collective bargaining, said of the exemption for large employers. Many hospitals have more than 500 employees, she noted.
The bill would give employers a tax credit for the sick days, but several Senate Republicans have objected on the grounds that it would cost businesses too much. It would also make testing for the virus free, with the cost paid by either private insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid, or the federal government.
Meanwhile, Saunders said that the Trump administration’s response to the epidemic had shown “shocking incompetence.” The union charges that it has failed to provide adequate testing, blocked health officials from issuing alerts, and is “actively spreading dangerous misinformation.”
AFSCME, which represents 1.4 million workers in state and local governments, wants the federal government to get rid of the large-employer exemption for paid sick leave; pay for coronavirus patients’ medical care, not just the cost of testing, and establish a formal occupational-safety standard for health-care workers. Health-care and home-care workers, first responders, and school employees are the workers most at risk for being exposed to the virus, Saunders said.
No person should have to pay out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment, Thornton said. Either the federal government or private insurers should cover them, without copayments or deductibles. AFSCME would also like to see more paid sick leave given to people with children, she added, and aid to state and local governments to cover those costs and avert layoffs.
So far, the union has avoided layoffs or furloughs, negotiating for workers to work at home or take administrative leave. “We’re not hearing about large swaths of AFSCME members who are not getting paid,” said Thornton. “I don’t know how long that will last.”
Another issue is working conditions for people on the front lines. “As someone who is working directly with people who may have contracted the virus, it is vitally important that employers and the authorities provide first responders with the correct information, training, and equipment they need,” said Blake Anderson, an emergency medical technician and assistant chief steward of Local 4911 in Yolo County, outside Sacramento. He was part of the group screening patients on the Grand Princess cruise ship when it was quarantined at the docks in Oakland, about 85 miles away.
Pamela Wells of CSEA Local 100A in upstate New York, a longtime child-care provider in the village of Argyle, said she plans to stay open, because parents who have to work need a place to put their children, especially as schools close. But she worries that she’ll run out of supplies such as disinfectant, food, soap, and toilet paper if the epidemic lasts long enough.
The epidemic hit at a time when the number of public-health workers, and public-sector workers in general, is significantly smaller than it was 15 or 20 years ago. “We have faced many staffing cuts over the years. The schools don’t get smaller, though,” said Derrick Fields, head custodian at Medina Middle School in Columbus, Ohio and president of Local 580. Custodians prevent the disease from spreading by mopping up infectious droplets, he said.
“Staffing levels have never returned to where they were before the Great Recession,” Saunders said. “Those chickens are now coming home to roost. We stand ready to work with all levels of government—not just to get this outbreak under control, but to make sure we are properly resourced to prevent another one in the future.”