Workers call on Detroit leaders to aid in protections amid COVID-19 as reopenings loom

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Workers on the front lines of COVID-19 are imploring city leaders to fight to ensure that the private companies they work for provide adequate gear and protections and "a voice" in the reopening process.

A handful of fast-food workers, nursing home staff, janitor and security workers made their case to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and several city council members during a teleconference focused on transforming the city's economy for working people post COVID-19.

"Before the pandemic, it was hard to keep ends met, but now it's very extreme," said Shaniqua Madison, a seven-year employee of Burger King who cares for her mother who has cancer. "I'm scared to go to work because my mother doesn't have an immune system."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

The discussion comes as the city is in the midst of an effort to aid small businesses in preparations for reopening amid a slowed rate of deaths in the city from the virus.

The mayor last week rolled out the initial phase of a partnership called Detroit Means Business. The coalition of government, businesses, philanthropic and nonprofit partners, has come together to provide city companies with a reopening playbook, financial and resources and access to protective equipment for staff. 

Duggan told the workers Wednesday that he and other Detroit officials support efforts to ensure safety and will call upon the city's Health Department to hold private businesses jeopardizing worker health accountable.

"I want to do everything that is within my legal power to help you," said Duggan, noting that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has the authority to issue orders to govern practices of private companies, not the city. 

"But if you have somebody in the City of Detroit who is taking an action that is jeopardizing the health of your members or people you are interacting with, we need to know that," he said. "Because if we have that kind of an instance, the health department can go in under the basis of an imminent threat to public health."

The mayor earlier this month announced six construction projects including streetscape improvements and housing units worth about $120 million would resume in Detroit.

But not without an aggressive screening process. Construction teams at Detroit worksites must undergo temperature checks, wear masks and social distance. The city also has inspectors verifying compliance. 

The city in recent weeks conducted an aggressive round of testing for nursing home staff and residents and it has also begun the slow return of some of its workforce with a strict set of protocols.

Delores McDaniel, a security officer for SecurAmerica, which is a contract firm for Bedrock, said she and her colleagues have been deemed essential during the crisis but contends they are in "harms way."

"We have been totally and completely forgotten about time and time again," she said. 

Pam Owens Moore, a janitor and member of SEIU Local 1, said the impacts of the pandemic have been something workers haven't endured in their lifetimes. 

"I'm a janitor that comes out every day to it and live it," she said. "We asking you to help us and make sure companies make sure we're well protected in our job."

Just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, Whitmer eased restrictions and allowed for restaurants, bars and shops in parts of northern Michigan and all of the Upper Peninsula to reopen with various limitations.

The governor, in those cases, has allowed for county and city officials to impose stricter standards. That hasn't happened in Detroit yet, but when it does, Duggan said he will talk with union groups and frontline workers to factor in their concerns. 

Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield, Council President Brenda Jones as well as members James Tate, Roy McCalister Jr. and Scott Benson also joined in the call to convey their support.

"As we do begin to re-engage the economy, just please use your voice," Sheffield said. "You are the frontline workers and as we shape policy, you all need to be part of that conversation."

Added Jones: "I will continue to stand with you. I do support you."