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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Tired of Waiting For Protections, Essential Workers Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

By Mary Mazzoni
farmworkers essential workers

The new coronavirus relief package proposed by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday includes some elements of the so-called essential workers "bill of rights," an encouraging sign for activists. But some essential workers aren't waiting for the government — or their employers — to step in and keep them safe. 

On Thursday, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), an investor group with over 300 member organizations representing more than $500 billion in managed assets, brought essential workers from across sectors together to tell their stories on a live webcast. Their perseverance through unimaginable strain shows the new face of employee activism in the wake of the coronavirus. But don't call them heroes, they ask insistently — give them the respect and protections they deserve instead. 

Healthcare workers call on their employer for protective equipment 

Those who shared their stories include Patricia Diaz, a registered nurse at a HCA Healthcare-affiliated university hospital in Tamarac, Florida. HCA is the largest hospital chain in the U.S., received $700 million in the last coronavirus aid package, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But Diaz says she and her coworkers in HCA's Tamarac hospital are not receiving adequate equipment to protect themselves and their patients. One of her colleagues has already tested positive for the coronavirus, but not before unknowingly spreading it to her two children. 

"What we are seeing goes against everything we were taught," Diaz said. "In my 23 years as a nurse, I would never have thought we'd be asked to reuse [protective equipment] or not be provided with the right equipment for our safety." 

Diaz is one of hundreds of HCA employees who have signed on to a letter urging the company to ensure adequate and sterile protective equipment, provide universal testing for the coronavirus, and guarantee affordable healthcare and paid sick leave for affected workers. "We need investors in HCA to reach out to the company and ask them to make sure that we have the items needed so that we can take care of our patients, ourselves, our families and our community," she added. 

Essential workers in retail turn to shareholder activism 

Likewise, Cynthia Murray, a Walmart employee from Laurel, Maryland, isn't waiting for lawmakers — or her employer — to act. She filed a shareholder proposal to allow hourly retail workers to be eligible for seats on Walmart's board of directors. "Associates have important insight into corporate operations that would support good governance," Murray said during ICCR's webcast. "None of the independent directors report having retail experience. Our voice is needed."

While Walmart has approved policies to provide protective equipment and ensure social distancing within retail stores, Murray says these are not consistently enforced, leading to lapses that have created coronavirus hotspots at several Walmart locations across the U.S. 

"Every day with coronavirus is like Black Friday in my store. Even though there are policies on customer limits, there aren't enough staff to actually enforce them," said Murray, age 63. "At a recent shift, I was given one set of gloves for the whole shift. We're told to put them back on after lunch or using the restrooms. Maintenance workers in my store were only given two pairs of gloves for the whole day."

Murray says hourly worker representation on Walmart's board would serve to address blind spots between company policies and what's actually happening on the ground. Shareholders will vote on her proposal during the company's annual meeting on June 3. 

Florida farmworkers lobby the state government for critical services 

Meanwhile, Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a key leader with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), is pressuring Florida's state government to better protect the farmworkers he represents. "This crisis has brought a lot of the things that we have been confronting as workers prior to the pandemic to the front — a fight to be able to be seen, to be able to be recognized," Chavez said. 

Those represented by CIW are predominantly migrant farmworkers who live in mobile homes with up to a dozen other people. They travel to work by bus in numbers of 30 or more. They were not afforded relief in the last coronavirus stimulus, and Chavez said they are not provided with protective equipment. "It is impossible for people to observe social distancing," he said. "On top of that, there were no tests available for our community. When you think about all of those things combined, we are like dry tinder in the path of a wildfire." 

Chavez and the CIW sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking him to respond with testing, protective equipment and a field hospital to treat those affected by COVID-19. For farmworkers in Immokalee, the nearest hospital is 40 minutes away in Naples, one of the wealthiest cities in Florida.

"Just to give you a sense of the lack of appropriate response in our context, in about a month there were only around 160 tests for a community made up of 25,000 to 30,000 people," Chavez explained. Of those 160 tests, 60 came back positive, he said.

More widespread testing was made available at the beginning of May, and Chavez said nearly 1,400 workers showed up to be tested. "It is very, very important right now to be able to understand what percentage of people come back positive so that we can respond to that," he told investors, business leaders and press on ICCR's webinar. "[The state] has effectively ignored all of the suggestions that we have been making since the beginning. This is just wrong, because it's putting the lives of workers at risk." 

The humanitarian crisis in Immokalee, as well as on farm fields in Eastern states from Georgia to New Jersey, is intrinsically linked to our food system. Farmworkers represented by the CIW produce 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes harvested in the U.S. between November and May, along with several other staple fruits and vegetables which are predominantly sold on the U.S. East Coast. 

"Cities that are right now dealing with this crisis — cities like New York and others on this side of the country — are depending on the food we are producing," Chavez said. "If people get sick in the fields, that's going to unravel another crisis that is already showing its ugly face in regards to the meatpacking sector."  

The CIW is engaging with stakeholders in its Fair Food Program, which includes growers across seven East Coast states, as well as 14 retail companies that condition their purchasing on the implementation of worker protections. But Chavez warns that "all of the efforts of mitigation mean nothing if there are no concrete ways to respond to the needs that will emerge very soon in our community." 

Activist investors and labor unions rally behind essential workers

As essential workers fight their own fights at the local level, labor unions and investor coalitions are bringing the conversation to the national stage. The ICCR spearheaded the Investor Statement on Coronavirus Response, signed by 314 investors representing over $9 trillion in assets, which outlines actions investors are seeking from companies to protect worker safety. 

Separately, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more than 1.5 million people across the U.S., launched the Protect All Workers campaign to demand "immediate, sweeping action" from CEOs. Among their demands are emergency childcare funds, debt relief, housing assistance, and fully funded and accessible healthcare for every U.S. worker, including free COVID-19 testing and treatment. 

Neal Bisno, executive vice president of the union, addressed investors on ICCR's webcast directly, asking them to support essential workers. "Governors are beginning to force workers back to work, often in situations that don't meet the current federal administration's own criteria for lifting safety restrictions," he said. "It's just wrong to send people back to work and into public spaces without a safe, well-managed plan. We simply can't ask people to choose between their health and their paycheck — and companies that ask workers to do so are companies that should not receive your investment." 

Image credit: Anaya Katlego/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni