I’ll never forget the terror I felt in March of this year.
As the father of three young daughters with little information about the pandemic, I wiped down my groceries and sanitized the gas nozzle. I did everything to protect myself and my family against a virus that seemed like it was everywhere.
But the virus wasn’t everywhere. While I was working from home as a workers’ rights lawyer, I began hearing terrifying stories about the risks workers faced every day — risks my family and I were able to avoid.
I heard from meatpacking workers who were getting sick and dying after being forced to work shoulder to shoulder; mattress company workers sick with COVID-19 after being denied sick leave; health care and nursing home employees working without personal protective equipment; and migrant farmworkers living in cramped, unventilated employer-provided housing with fevers and coughs but unable to even get tested.
By early April, it became clear that many of our most essential workers were getting sick the fastest and that low-wage workers and workers of color were at the highest risk. Now, as the virus spreads rapidly, we’re getting another surge of calls.
The good news is the spread of the virus in workplaces is preventable. And in Colorado, we don’t need to shut everything down or wait many months for a vaccine to do something about it.
The Polis administration and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment have already taken swift steps to ensure that our new COVID-19 paid-sick-leave law is effectively enforced. And advocates and workers have seen first-hand how those efforts have made us all safer.
But the problems we see in workplaces extend beyond paid sick leave, and unfortunately we can’t wait for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to act.
That’s why the Colorado AFL-CIO and workers statewide are calling on the Polis administration to take five steps to prevent workplace spread and enforce public health rules against employers that fail to comply:
- Create a hotline and online form for workers to report unsafe conditions,
- Dedicate the resources it takes to make timely investigation of complaints,
- Enforce public health orders,
- Provide regular reports regarding the number of complaints and the sectors where they’re arising, and,
- Educate workers on their rights.
Some version of all these steps have already been implemented by states across the country.
Lots of businesses — including many small businesses — already are doing the hard work of protecting their workers and the general public by requiring masks, providing PPE, implementing structural changes to allow physical distancing, and encouraging paid sick leave. But far too many businesses continue to flout the rules for their own profits.
For example, contrary to CDC guidance and state public health orders regarding physical distancing, many employers in Colorado still pack workers far too closely along production lines or into factories, farmworker housing, or fast-food restaurant kitchens. Those businesses could continue to operate just fine if they provided more space for workers to spread out consistent with public health orders, but doing so would impede their profits, and so many have refused.
We must realize that we’re not saving costs by letting some employers skirt the rules — we’re just shifting them. Many large corporations have profited enormously during the pandemic while workers laboring to support those profits have borne the terrible costs of the virus.
Although there are promising developments on the way, including a vaccine and a new administration, it could take many months for the vaccines to substantially impede spread or for the Biden administration to fully correct the Trump administration’s scandalous failure to protect workers from this pandemic.
We can’t wait that long.
All of us are at risk from COVID-19. But while many of us can make choices for ourselves that can help to limit spread, thousands of Colorado workers caring for patients, producing our food, and shipping our presents across the country will be safe from the virus only to the extent that their employers play by the rules.
We don’t save money or increase anyone’s freedom by letting employers decide whether to prioritize their profits or their people.
It’s time for the state to do more to protect workers.
David Seligman is executive director of Denver-based Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm that seeks to advance economic justice, and previously was a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
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