Philly Workers Organizing During COVID-19

This is a guest post by Madison Nardy

Growing up as a student in the Philadelphia public school system, no matter what grade I was in, our teachers would present lectures about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic. We would go on field trips to learn about our nation’s history, but hearing about this epidemic terrified me as a child. I remember daydreaming in class, worried that something like this would happen again. Fast forward to today, my childhood daydreams have become my reality. As a child, what I failed to daydream about, is how a global outbreak of such a deadly disease would hurt our most vulnerable people, the working and poor class.  

I began the fight towards economic justice in 2016, while I was approached by a worker organizer at my previous job at Target, where I experienced a reduction in my hours while my manager simultaneously hired new employees, closing one night and opening the very next morning, and forced to stay late or come in early at the very last minute. Working in these conditions was very stressful on myself, my family, and even more stressful now during a pandemic.

Workers all across the nation work in stressful conditions like I did, but since the beginning of the pandemic, these conditions spiraled out of control. Somehow our nation divided “low-wage” workers into two categories, nonessential and essential workers. Regardless of which category someone falls into, everyone is struggling. Workers at nonessential businesses all across the nation, have been furloughed, laid-off, or even fired. Luckily for me, my nonessential business furloughed all of its employees company wide. We were able to collect unemployment, which is not the case for all workers.

 Domestic workers and people who work for cash make up a large portion of our nation’s workforce, and do not qualify for unemployment. Since families are beginning to work from home, they are no longer in need for domestic workers, like house cleaners and nannies. Domestic workers across the city and the nation are out of work and unable to receive unemployment benefits. Our highest priority is to keep our nation healthy, and to provide them with resources to protect their health, feed their families, and keep a roof over their head. 

Essential workers are most at risk for testing positive for Covid-19, and they are the first people we need to protect. Essential workers like grocery store clerks, mass transit workers, and mail carriers, come in contact with hundreds or thousands of customers a day. If we don’t protect them, the pandemic will only get worse. The Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave law provides workers with one hour of paid sick time for every forty hours worked, that gives a maximum of five days per year. This is not enough paid sick time during a pandemic. The recovery time for mild Covid-19 cases is two weeks, and workers need two weeks of paid sick time, and ensured their jobs will be protected once coming back from self- isolation.

The Coalition to Respect Every Worker organized a virtual town hall on March 26th, with two demands to tell City Council. Create an emergency fund for workers who are unable to receive unemployment like domestic workers, and people who work for cash. And to also expand the Paid Sick Leave law from five days to two weeks for all Philadelphia workers. I was in attendance along with 400 other workers, community members, ten City Council members, and supporters. Our turnout goal was 200 people, I was shocked when I logged into zoom and saw 400 other people fighting along with me. It felt powerful to see people all throughout the city support our demands, and the support of City Council. 

Workers like María del Carmen Díaz, who is a Domestic worker, lost all of her work due to the coronavirus shut down. Diaz expressed to the four-hundred in attendance, how important it is for our city to step up and protect those who don’t qualify for unemployment. Several more workers shared their stories about how their essential businesses are not taking any, or as many safety precautions as they should, putting their workers, and customers’ lives at risk. We need city council to expand paid sick leave so workers who test positive for coronavirus can self- isolate, and for workers who want to protect their health, to end the spread of Covid-19. While the City did expand its paid sick leave law to cover public health emergencies, in the first days of the shutdowns, the leave law only provides 5 days of paid time off to workers–far less than the amount many of us need. And many workers were left out of that bill initially, including gig workers, domestic workers, and those workers represented by unions. 

After workers shared their stories, City Council shared their thoughts. Freshman City Council Member, Kenrdra Brooks shared her story of being a domestic worker before running for office, and expressed how important it is to protect domestic workers who do not qualify for unemployment. Helen Gym reminded us of our previous long fights and victories, like Fair Work Week and The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Our two demands will be a hard fight, but it cannot be a long one. Once these legislations pass, Mark Squilla stressed the importance of labor law enforcement. 

With so much support from City Council members, two weeks later, we see no move for expanding paid sick leave legislation. Legislation of all kinds are being stalled due to the current circumstances of Covid-19, but workers like myself need legislation now more than ever. While I was daydreaming as a little girl, I never would’ve seen myself in the position I’m in now. A struggling college student, on unemployment, fighting for economic justice. I think back to how big of an imagination I had, and an even bigger one now. My adult day dreams include a world where our people are not suffering and we live in peace, and it only forces me to fight harder. Expanding Paid Sick Leave to two weeks, and creating an emergency workers fund is a first huge step our city can take to help our suffering people. 

Madison Nardy is a member of One Pennsylvania and a worker leader of the Philly Worker Power Organizing Project. Madison studies political science at Temple University. She worked at The Philadelphia International Airport before being furloughed due to COVID-19.

Southern public sector workers are fighting to stay safe, while they perform essential services

Public sector workers are more highly unionized than private sector ones, so it’s to be expected that they have some more ability to bargain about working conditions during the COVID-19 shutdown. However, public sector unionization isn’t uniform across the US—in many states, public employees labor under Right-to-Work laws, or work in states that don’t allow collective bargaining in the public sector. 

North Carolina is one of the Southern states that explicitly ban public sector employers and employees from signing a collective bargaining agreement–some have described it as the last relic of the Jim Crow South. To get a sense of how public workers are protecting themselves, as well as the public, I talked to members and staff from UE Local 150, which represents city workers in five cities in the state, as well as the state university system, and other parts of the state government. 

After a Raleigh sanitation worker Adrian Grubbs became the second person in the state to die of the disease, the union pushed for safety precautions and PPE for essential workers around the state—and some cities initially responded proactively. Charlotte, for example, switched their sanitation workers’ schedules to a rotating one, where workers shared shifts by working one week on and one week off—to reduce the number of people in the facilities each morning. However, after complaints from residents that their trash wasn’t being picked up “on time,” the City recently informed the entire sanitation department that they should report for work on Monday, 4/6. 

Dominc Harris, the president of the UE chapter at the City of Charlotte said in a phone interview, “Workers should die so they have a clean curb? It’s out for maybe 12 hours. It makes us feel like they are endangering us. It’s not fair, it’s not right.” On Monday morning, public workers around the city will be wearing stickers to show solidarity with the sanitation department. 

According to UE Local 150 organizer Dante Strobino, the union has launched several petitions supporting workers in both the state university system and in various cities, including this one that supports the Charlotte workers. “We wanted petitions that people could circulate through their cell phones, so they didn’t have to have physical contact, or pass around paper and pens (which could spread disease),” Strobino told me. “It’s attracted a bunch of interest from workers who weren’t previously active with the union. We had 500 university workers sign a petition to UNC and the governor, before it went out to the public.” 

While most students have left the university in order to minimize the spread of disease, UNC has let around 600 students who had no where else to go (mostly international students and students who have dysfunctional family relationships or no other place to go) shelter in place on campus. That means that the kitchens are still open, and housekeepers are still expected to report to work. However, those workers who have small children are finding themselves torn, as many of the daycare centers and schools that watch their children while they’re at work in normal times have closed. 

Greisa Vazquez, a housekeeper who works for the state Department of Health & Human Services at Central Regional Hospital, told me that she’s been at home since the daycare that her three-year-old attends was closed. “I went to HR weeks ago to ask them about the plan for those of us who have kids—and they didn’t have one. Other workers have family members taking care of their children, but my family all live in Puerto Rico, so I don’t have anyone here. My paid time has already been used up. I’m stressed because I can lose my job while I’m waiting for them to figure it out. I just moved into a new apartment, and I’m going to lose it if I can’t pay my rent.”

Strobino told me that the state’s mental health workers, generally, have not been getting hazard pay, even though the hospitals are still accepting in-patient admissions, making it hard to practice physical distancing. “They’re supposed to pay time and half during health emergencies—and they’re not even doing that. They’re not handing out enough personal protective equipment, for instance, not everyone is given an N95 mask yet. The Department is sending home instructions on how to sew your own mask. Some units are taking hand sanitizer off the floors to save it til there is a case—but the (mostly white) nurses get to use it, while the (mostly Black and Brown) blue-collar staff are denied access.” 

The union has recently worked with other movement groups to launch a new coalition: North Carolina United for Survival and Beyond, and is putting pressure on the state legislature to convene a special session to spend about $3.2 billion in Rainy Day & other funds, to address immediate and long-term needs related to the crisis presented by income and social inequality, as well as those directly created by the virus.