Labor leaders and union members are demanding that the U.S. Senate act on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the House of Representatives by a 208 to 199 vote May 15. The HEROES Act would provide $3 trillion in relief that working people desperately need—including the continuation of unemployment benefits through January 2021, protections for multiemployer pensions, and assistance to laid-off workers’ health care payments. Republican Senators who would prefer to shrink government down and drown it in the toilet pledged to block the bill that includes provisions to help fund vital public services.
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be proud of this bill. I applaud House Democrats for going big and bold in the face of this unprecedented crisis,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said May 12. “For weeks, we have been advocating for economic essentials that protect working people’s lives and livelihoods. The HEROES Act includes an emergency workplace infectious disease standard; gives aid for state and local governments, public schools, the U.S. Postal Service, and pension relief; keeps workers on payrolls to avoid mass layoffs; extends unemployment insurance; provides more direct payments to working people; extends health care coverage; and provides housing and food benefits, and much more.”
Trumka noted that, “The ball will soon be in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s court. Working people are desperate for our leaders to put partisanship aside and do what is right for our health, our economy and our country. We will mobilize like never before to make the HEROES Act the law of the land. If McConnell stands in the way, this could very well be his final year in the U.S. Senate.” In a Facebook Live interview on May 15, Trumka called on union and nonunion workers to contact their senators and tell them to vote for the HEROES Act.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Lee Saunders urged the the Senate to pass the legislation. “A crisis of this magnitude demands the boldest possible response, and this bill meets the moment,” Saunders said. “Public service workers are on the job around the clock, doing everything in their power to beat this pandemic, risking their lives to save others. But with the economy in a state of collapse and state and local governments rapidly going broke, the only thanks they’re getting so far is a pink slip. The nation shed an unprecedented 1 million public sector jobs in April. If that trend continues, it will absolutely shatter our communities.”
Saunders said, “The only way to beat COVID and reopen the economy is to save vital public services and the public service workers who provide them—and this bill from the House of Representatives does exactly that. This legislation, instead of bailing out wealthy corporations, invests in the services and the people who make our communities strong: people who provide clean water, safe roads, strong schools, fully staffed hospitals and much more. The need is urgent and the stakes are high. We need to fund the front lines now.”
CWA President Chris Shelton called the Heroes Act “an important next step in our country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team listened to the concerns of working people, especially those who have been on the front lines of this crisis, and made protecting their health and providing fair compensation a focus of this legislation. Donald Trump quickly declared he would veto the bill, alarmed that it closes loopholes that provide tax breaks to the super-rich. He needs to get his priorities straight and stop acting like the best way to recover from this pandemic is to pretend like it doesn’t exist.”
The bill contains provisions that will support employment for CWA members and allow them to continue to serve their communities, including funding for state and local public services, internet access for schools and families, and access for local news outlets to the Paycheck Protection Program. It provides premium pay for essential workers in a number of key sectors to fairly compensate them for the risks they have been taking by staying on the job during this crisis. The bill improves access to paid leave for millions of workers, includes new payments to individuals to offset lost pay, extends unemployment insurance and helps prevent foreclosures and evictions.
Shelton noted that the bill, “requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do something that should have been done at the outset of the pandemic if the Trump Administration really cared about workers: establish an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect those who have been on the front lines of this crisis, interacting with the public and risking exposure to the novel coronavirus every day. It also establishes funding and coordination to ensure that they have access to badly-needed personal protective equipment.”
American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President Everett Kelley said, “We are glad to see that this legislation emphasizes the needs of front-line workers, who continue to put themselves and their families in harms’ way every day they report to work. Provisions included in the House bill would provide much-needed help and support to nurses and other health-care providers at veterans’ hospitals, to correctional officers and staff in our federal prisons, to federal meat and poultry inspectors at processing plants, and all the workers whose lives have been endangered or otherwise disrupted by this deadly contagion.”
Kelley said AFGE priorities in the legislation include premium pay, universal testing, additional Personal Protective Equipment, and clarification of Paid Leave eligibility for federal employees. The bill also gives employees who must interact with the public, who have been quarantined, or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the performance of their duties a presumption that they contracted the virus at work. This will help expedite approval of workers’ compensation claims. It also requires agencies to allow and expand teleworking opportunities for all eligible federal employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) General President Ken Rigmaiden pointed out that the construction industry has been rocked by the pandemic and many workers are facing the abyss posed by a potential loss in healthcare at a time when it is needed more than ever.
“At last, the HEROES Act presents the kind of direction, relief, and opportunity for bipartisan action that America so desperately needs right now,” said Rigmaiden. “Our members have already experienced death, sickness and financial strife throughout this crisis and are in dire need of stability. For many of our members who are facing a future without vital health coverage, or who are working but do not currently have the worksite protections they need, the passage of the HEROES Act is increasingly a matter of life and death, and we will be mobilizing accordingly.”
While previous COVID-19 bills did not include assistance to the Postal Service—despite the USPS’ warnings of revenue loss due to the pandemic and the health risks employees take while on the job—the HEROES Act moves to provide some financial aid and hazard pay in order to get the Postal Service through this crisis. The bill provides for $25 billion to make up for lost revenue, with priority given to the purchase of personal protective equipment. Additionally, the bill removes certain borrowing restrictions imposed on the Postal Service from the Department of Treasury. The HEROES Act would also grant pandemic premium pay for all postal employees.
The National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) noted that Senate leaders have not offered more than the bare minimum support for the Postal Service. The NPMHU said its members would mobilize to ensure that Senators understand the vital importance of the Postal Service and its impact on every American household.
National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country, praised the HEROES Act for including the protections that nurses and other frontline workers need, and for addressing many of the other challenges that working families and communities are facing during this pandemic.
“For more than two months, nurses around the country have been calling on Congress and the White House to mandate a federal occupational safety and health standard for frontline health care workers and to ensure that we have the personal protective equipment we need to stay healthy and alive during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN, executive director of NNU. “We applaud Speaker Pelosi and the House Democrats for hearing our calls and addressing these issues in the HEROES Act.”
The legislation includes the Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, which would mandate the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to put forward an Emergency Temporary Standard to ensure that employers protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NNU petitioned OSHA for an Emergency Temporary Standard on March 4, 2020, and have been advocating for a congressional mandate for the standard since that time. This standard would prevent hospital managers and other employers from locking up personal protective equipment or providing incorrect protective equipment, and it would ensure that employees receive the education and training needed to use PPE safely.
The legislation would also ensure the increased production and delivery of PPE and other medical supplies, through the use of the Defense Production Act and new systems for reporting, transparency, and coordination of supply chain logistics.
-Paul Burton, San Mateo Labor