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Opinion: For safe recovery, put workers first

Ron Bieber

We are all eager for the worst of this awful global pandemic to be over so that we can return to our lives, our routines and our workplaces. But we must only do so when the scientific data says it is safe to do so. 

Working people are not expendable. We cannot sacrifice their lives because some are overly eager to “restart” the economy. While some are quick to cite the economic impact of stay-at-home orders, they seem all too quick to forget the value of human life. They also seem to forget there is an economic cost to death and illness. This is not about politics or partisanship, or pitting unions against those who are anti-union. It’s about life and death. 

When workers do return to work, their health and safety must be placed as the highest priority. Unfortunately, even at the height of the pandemic, that has not always been the case. There have been numerous reports of doctors, nurses and other frontline health care workers lacking the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to do their jobs safely. Target’s shift workers are walking off the job because they don’t have access to the appropriate personal protection equipment needed to reduce their risks of contracting COVID-19. 

Workers are silhouetted against the rising sun as they toil on a new apartment building in Kansas City, Mo. Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Construction workers are among the people exempt from the city's stay-at-home order which remains in effect in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

A recent survey of United Food and Commercial Workers members (grocery and food service workers) showed that 96 percent are concerned about their exposure to COVID-19. And sadly their concerns are not without merit. As I write, 30 grocery workers in this country have died from this virus, and 3,000 more are no longer at work because they’ve been exposed or are sick. The disease is a clear and present danger to workers and to our food supply, and that won’t change just because we finally succeed in flattening the curve. 

Whatever guidelines are put in place, there must be strict enforcement and consequences for those who violate the rules. We have already seen businesses that are all too willing to bend and break the rules of what is “essential,” putting their workers and the general public at risk and prompting action by the Michigan attorney general.

We must also consider what “going back to work” means for many public sector employees. Take for example the daily commute and the increased numbers of people who will use public transit. Many transit workers across the country have gotten sick or even died from the coronavirus, including Jason Hargrove of Detroit. We must think about how we keep these folks safe as well.

There’s been a lot of talk about how we can mitigate the economic damage from this crisis. We’re grateful to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her action to extend and expand unemployment benefits, providing tremendous help to folks at a time when they need it most. We’re hopeful that any additional stimulus from the federal government sustains people through the crisis; aids workers in severely affected sectors including transportation, construction, retail, manufacturing, entertainment, and hospitality; supports state and local government and the U.S. Postal Service; and crucially, invests in rebuilding the economy and putting people back to work. 

Most critically, we must follow the science on the best way to prevent further spread. All leaders should work toward a comprehensive set of recommendations, not rush to meet arbitrary deadlines. The worst thing we could do is rush this process and risk a second round of the outbreak. Lives are depending on our ability to put workers' interests first.

Ron Bieber is president of Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.