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The COVID-19 pandemic has sent our world into a public health and economic tailspin.

As of May, the national unemployment rate was at 13.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Michigan, it is a staggering 21.2% — worse than the Great Recession. The Washington Post reports that more than 100,000 businesses have closed permanently.

But more important, lives are at stake.

While a majority of employees in white-collar industries were able to move to much safer remote work environments, hundreds of thousands of “essential” and “frontline” workers — grocery store clerks, sanitation and transportation workers, medical professionals, and others — could not stay home even when the nation was on lockdown.

Health-wise, certain industries have been especially hard hit, including meatpacking plants, where the coronavirus outbreaks continue to soar. The number of coronavirus cases tied to meatpacking plants recently topped 20,400 infections across 216 plants in 33 states, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found. At least 74 people have died.

Workers in Amazon’s delivery network — which has emerged as a vital service for millions of Americans stuck inside their homes — are also at risk. More than 5,000 Amazon workers have signed a petition asking for additional benefits, including hazard pay, and for the company to shut down any facility where a worker tests positive so it can be properly cleaned.

And those are the individuals who still have a job.

This pandemic has shown just how critical it is to have a union to protect the rights, working conditions, safety and health of workers. With almost the flip of a switch, millions of hard working people across the country were suddenly without work, without health benefits, struggling economically — proud individuals who suddenly needed to file unemployment, miss mortgage payments and visit food banks to see their families through this crisis.

As with any union, the UAW’s foremost role is advocating for their members in the workplace. During this pandemic, it was abundantly clear that unionized workers are in a far better position than their nonunion counterparts. Take paid sick leave as an example. Currently 91% of unionized workers are guaranteed paid sick leave, compared to 73% of non-union workers, according to the Pew Research Center. Low-wage industries, such as the service industry, have no paid leave at all. Among the lowest-earning tenth — those whose wages are $10.80 an hour or less — just 31% have paid sick leave, according to Pew.

Health care insurance is another example. Many people without insurance during COVID-19 forgo hospitalization due to the fear of insurmountable costs. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 12.7 million workers have likely lost employer-provided health insurance since the coronavirus shock began. Union members are far less likely to have this concern.

UAW members are faring much better. During the pandemic, we had negotiated Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Plan (SUB) pay should the supplemental unemployment not be enough, ensured the health and safety of plants before our workers returned, and insisted on a modified workplace to follow safe distancing. And our members stayed insured. Our members had a contract to protect them. Without a contract, they would be struggling like the millions of nonunion Americans are now.

So how do we help all workers?

Now, more than ever, Congress must put partisan politics aside and take strong and immediate action to fight the spread of the coronavirus and its severe economic impact. Strong and decisive measures are needed in order to create a pathway for a speedy, equitable and sustained economic recovery.

Currently under discussion in the Senate, the HEROES Act  would lay the groundwork for us to rebound from this crisis. The HEROES Act can help in many ways. From ensuring laid-off workers keep their health insurance and get unemployment pay, to forcing OSHA to finally issue strong standards requiring all workplaces, to developing infection control plans, it makes the workplace secure again.

The HEROES Act also includes vital support for state and local governments that are on the front lines every day working to stop the spread of the virus while providing essential services we all rely on.

In short, HB 6800 gives all workers protections currently benefiting our union brothers and sisters; benefits and protections clearly illustrating how crucial union support and workplace equity is in our world today.

Please join with UAW brothers and sisters, urging Congress to pass this important bill.

Please join us in ensuring the devastation to our citizens economic and personal health experienced during the COVID-19 crisis does not happen again.

Rory Gamble is president of the UAW.

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.

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