As COVID-19 Pandemic Rattles the Nation, UE Members Step Up, Speak Out, and Fight Back

May 26, 2020

The novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed almost all aspects of life, including the workplace. Virtually every UE local has been affected by the health and economic impacts of this unprecedented public health crisis.

Many UE members have been able to transition to working from home — or in some cases are continuing to be paid despite little or no work being available for them. But the majority are classified as “essential workers.” This means they must continue to show up to work and put their lives at risk in order to receive a paycheck, at a time that many are sheltering in place. In many cases UE members have found their employers totally unprepared for the new reality, with substandard (or nonexistent) personal protective equipment (PPE) and work processes which put workers in close contact with each other. In all too many UE shops, including virtually all large ones, there have now been cases of someone with COVID-19 being identified within the workplace, although no UE shops have become vectors of community transmission.

While—as in all conflicts with the boss—no victories come easy, there is a certain confluence of pressures which has given UE locals an unusual amount of leverage, despite the dire current economic situation. These include the boss’s own concerns about spreading COVID-19 beyond the bargaining unit, the boss not wanting to be labeled a site of community transmission and thereby inviting scrutiny by state health regulators, and the temporarily expanded unemployment benefits which in many cases pay more than regular hourly wages, making temporary furloughs more attractive to many UE members.

Across the country, dozens of UE locals have negotiated memorandums of agreement with their employers, establishing new temporary COVID-19 policies and procedures, or secured safety measures through mobilization and public pressure. While this pandemic is unprecedented in our union’s history, UE traditions of aggressive struggle in the workplace have served our membership well in facing this new challenge.

UE Co-Op Workers Fight for Hazard Pay and Better Safety Measures

Along with healthcare workers, one of the most visible groups of essential workers nationwide are those employed by grocery stores. Grocery workers do not have the luxury of working from home, and the difficulty of their jobs has risen due to changes in consumption of groceries, shortages of certain products, and new job requirements related to reducing the risk of infection. UE’s food co-op locals have had significant public fights during the public health emergency, and have won significant victories.

UE Local 203 members at City Market in Burlington, Vermont waged a spirited public campaign for hazard pay as early as March, with great visibility in the community and media coverage in the local press. Ultimately, members won an “appreciation bonus” of $120 per pay period based upon a 40-hour work week — effectively $3 per hour in hazard pay. In addition, members working more than six hours daily now receive an extra 15 minutes of paid break time. Numerous other safety demands made by the local have also been implemented by management.

Workers at Hunger Mountain in Montpelier, Vermont, members of Local 255, also waged a spirited public campaign in their community, and have expanded and renegotiated their own COVID-19 memorandum of understanding twice since the beginning of the public health emergency. Members have access to at least $2 per hour of hazard pay for all hours worked, with the possibility of higher levels of hazard pay if the co-op has higher levels of sales. Accrual of paid time off has been expanded by 30 percent for the duration of the state of emergency, and two weeks of paid FMLA leave can be provided to the member upfront.

Newly-organized Willy Street Co-Op (Local 1186) began negotiating its first COVID-19 MOU before its first formal contract with UE was ratified (see UE NEWS coverage of the first contract struggle). The first agreement in March included language ensuring that COVID-19-related absences would not count on the attendance policy, and that employees whose hours slipped below 30 per week would not have their health insurance cut off. In April a second MOU was negotiated which included $2 per hour in hazard pay, retroactive to March 16th.

Members of Local 667 also recently signed a new memorandum of understanding with their employer, the East End Food Co-Op of Pittsburgh. This MOU included a retroactive payment of $2.22 per hour for all wages worked for a month of the public health emergency. It also included an additional 40 hours of paid time off, along with an agreement that for the month of April all employee premium shares for medical, dental, and vision would instead be paid by the company.

The Public Sector Continues To Work — With Essential Workers Fighting Hard for Recognition

Conditions in the public sector vary dramatically from workplace to workplace, and state to state. While essentially no public schools in the country will be in session physically until the fall, UE-represented school employees are mostly receiving paychecks, even in cases where there is no work to be done remotely (though many are keeping busy with other tasks, like making and dropping off school lunches). Many other public-sector units have been able to negotiate the ability to do work from home, or when that is not possible, to stagger work shifts in such a manner as to minimize contact with one another in the workplace. However, in many cases, particularly in states where formal collective bargaining does not exist, UE locals have had to fight hard to protect workers’ safety, with much more yet to be done.

UE Local 170, which represents state workers across West Virginia, has been waging a campaign to raise awareness around safety issues for state employees. All public employees in West Virginia lack OSHA protections. In the state hospitals they have the added complication that public employees who are involved in health care and emergency response were exempted from the emergency paid sick leave/paid family leave provisions passed by Congress in March. While statewide collective action is difficult to coordinate given the current circumstances, the local has worked tirelessly to elevate the issue in the consciousness of the general public, including a letter to the governor, and a press release which was published in the second-most-read paper in the state. This has achieved some results, including improvements to policy enforcement, safety standards, and better distribution of PPE.

Local 150, which represents public workers in North Carolina, has been fighting many of the same problems. In addition to organizing state workers, Local 150 also has chapters of municipal workers in cities including Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, and Greensboro, and of university workers on a number of campuses of the University of North Carolina system.

Workers in state healthcare facilities, who make up the majority of Local 150’s state-worker membership, won 25 percent hazard premium pay for all employees in buildings where a patient has tested positive, and 50 percent for workers who work directly on units with positive patients.

The members of Local 150’s municipal chapters are predominantly essential workers in areas such as sanitation, and have faced tremendous difficulties due to the lack of adequate PPE and the need to continue to report to work. The second death from COVID-19 in the entire state of North Carolina was a supervisor in the Raleigh sanitation department and former UE steward.

Lacking collective bargaining rights, Local 150 has waged an aggressive public campaign, which has received both local and national press coverage, for more PPE, safer work processes, and easier access to testing for essential workers.

Manufacturing Continues Through Social Distancing, Raising Issues in the Shop

Manufacturing operations across the country have continued largely unimpeded. Although much manufacturing is technically classified as “non-essential work,” it appears to be very easy in most states for employers to get waivers to continue to operate on the flimsiest of excuses. That does not mean that it’s always “business as usual,” however. In some shops, product lines have changed suddenly with a shift to manufacturing personal protective equipment. In others supply chains have been disrupted, and in some cases demand for products has actually increased, leading to new hiring. In most shops there are issues related to lack of adequate PPE, workers having to perform tasks in many cases less than six feet apart, and other concerns which make pre-COVID-19 methods of operation dangerous to workers’ health.

In Erie, PA, Local 506 has been engaged in a fight with Wabtec management since early March, the stakes of which escalated when an employee tested positive for COVID-19 in early April. Due to the type of work that takes place in the Erie plant, maintaining space between workers is impossible for some jobs, which led the local leadership to make initial demands to shut down production of new locomotives, in line with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s executive order shutting down all non-essential businesses.

In early April the local reached a memorandum of understanding with the company, which has since been extended and slightly modified. Any worker who believes they are infected, or at considerable risk if they become infected, can choose to not to come to work (hundreds of UE members have utilized this policy). In addition, new safety standards have been established in the plant, and cell phone policy, bereavement leave, overtime cap, and many other contract provisions have been modified to account for the public health emergency.

UE’s Federal Contractor Locals Fight for Increased Safety

In UE’s federal contractor locals, which process immigration documents for the Department of Homeland Security and visa documents for the Department of State, the last few months have been a busy period. Although much of the country has been under stay-at-home orders, the work that UE members do for federal contractors has been classified as essential work.

It is particularly galling that they have mostly had to continue to physically report to work, because in all cases the federal workers who share the same facilities have been sent home and allowed to work remotely. Given that most federal-contactor workplaces have hundreds of employees working in relatively close quarters, the risk of infection is high, and confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases on site have been an unfortunately frequent occurrence. In most cases the government has been unwilling to let a substantial number of UE members work at the now-empty federal desks to spread out, though Local 208 in St. Albans, Vermont successfully worked with the offices of U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy to improve their ability to maintain social distancing. 

UE locals have won various accommodations from their employers in an effort to increase safety. Locals 208, 808, and 1008 (USCIS Vermont, Nebraska, and California Service Centers respectively) have all won furloughs to protect employment during COVID-19 related absences, along with agreement that the employer will report any furlough as being COVID-19 related, allowing members to collect unemployment when they are absent from work. Local 228 (National Visa Center, Portsmouth, NH) has also managed to win a transition of much of the work to being done from home, allowing those still required to come to work the ability to spread out more. All locals have won improved safety procedures, including greater social distancing, regular cleanings, and access to cleaning and sanitation supplies. In all cases, the normal attendance policies have been suspended, and a new liberal leave policy has been enacted. While positive cases of COVID-19 unfortunately are still cropping up in SCA locations, the employer now moves much more quickly to trace that worker’s contact history and promptly send home anyone suspected of being exposed, which has stopped community transmission in the workplace.

The Battle Ahead

For better or worse, many U.S. states are now beginning to reopen, either partially or completely. This will raise additional challenges for UE members. In many cases, for example, COVID-19 MOU language is directly tied to the public health state of emergency in their state, which means that if or when the state of emergency is lifted, the special protections may cease. Workplaces which partially shut down as non-essential will reopen, which will expose more members to the risk of contracting the virus at work. Maintaining hazard pay as the level of state and local emergency begins to decline will likely become difficult. And this is all presuming things continue to slowly get better. If there is a second wave of infections, or if the economic downturn starts leading to more permanent damage to the economy, a whole different set of problems presents itself.

Nonetheless, the current moment, though indeed dire, has created an opening for real structural change and an upending of the traditional relationship between the workers and the boss that has not been seen in generations. Across the economy workers are refusing to calmly accept the risk of hospitalization and death as the cost of feeding their families, with large groups of workers, both union and nonunion, engaging in job actions to secure a safer work environment. Now more than ever, UE is an example for the whole working class of what a militant, engaged membership can accomplish in trying times.

COVID-19 and the Economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the economy into freefall. By some measures as many as one out of every four workers are now unemployed, even if they are not yet able to collect benefits, meaning the current rate of joblessness may equal if not surpass what the U.S. faced during the depths of the Great Depression.

Some of this may be temporary: the current economic situation has been compared to putting a patient in a medically induced coma to save their lives, with many businesses closed not due to a drop in demand, but due to being non-essential businesses being shut down during the depths of the public health emergency. Indeed, four out of five unemployed workers still expect to be recalled. But for the time being, there is a great level of disruption in the economy.

The majority of UE members have not been impacted by direct layoffs related to COVID-19, with between 80 and 90 percent still receiving paychecks. However, as the experience of UE members in the grocery, public, manufacturing and federal-contractor sectors demonstrates, continuing to work during a pandemic has its own complications.

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