Workplace Safety during COVID-19

Workers are the frontline Defenders of Community Health during COVID-19 and must be included in deciding and implementing workplace safety standards

We find ourselves in a pivotal moment of change. Instead of going back to the old “normal”, a reality based on the exploitation of workers, we can unite together and demand a new normal led and shaped by workers’ voices, one that prioritizes safety over profit, and a chance to build a new economy that allows workers and their families to survive this crisis and thrive beyond it.

On Wednesday May 13th, Governor Walz announced that Minnesota will begin reopening sectors of the economy. We believe this decision is coming too soon, considering the public health recommendations and the lack of protection for workers who will be called back into work. For those who do go to work, we need to ensure that frontline workers have a voice in establishing and enforcing safety standards in their workplaces.

The decision to reopen sectors of the economy should be based on safety for workers and the broader public, not on profits for the wealthy. Poor communities of color should not have to risk their health to go back to work and meet the whims of the wealthy. In the meantime, federal, state and local governments must take steps to ensure that people are able to cover their basic needs by providing a universal “stay-at-home” pay for impacted families, and placing a moratorium on rent and mortgages. We cannot keep pushing the risk downward for the most vulnerable to bear the brunt. We need support directly to the people most impacted by this crisis, not a deal for the rich that promises it will eventually trickle down. 

As federal, state and local governments begin reopening the economy, we need to take steps to empower workers as frontline defenders of community health, particularly in sectors of the economy where workers and the broader public are at more risk of exposure. This includes areas where workers are in frequent physical proximity with the public or other workers, as well as industries where there are frequent violations of workers’ rights.

Over the past several weeks, CTUL has been reaching out to low-wage workers in the Twin Cities metro area to understand how the community has been impacted. Every single worker who is still working reported that they have not received the proper safety training or personal protective equipment to remain safe at work during the pandemic. It is not enough to create safety protocols and expect that employers will respect those protocols. If we want to make sure that workers and the broader community are safe as we open the economy, we must take steps to ensure that workers who are putting their lives on the line have a say in what is needed for their safety. Workers are front-line experts in knowing how to carry out their work in the safest way possible for themselves and the community – their voices must be included in creating and enforcing safety standards. We are all healthier and safer when workers are empowered to identify potential safety violations and determine the conditions they need to protect themselves and the public.

We can do this by taking steps including: 

  • Ensure that workers have the Right to Refuse to work under conditions that the worker believes would expose them, other workers, and/or the broader public to COVID-19. 
  • Workers who go back to work should receive training on paid time led by trusted community organizations about workplace safety during COVID-19. 
  • Establish municipal sectoral commissions of workers from vulnerable sectors of the economy that can lay out protocol for safe workplaces in those sectors. 
  • Establish worker safety liaisons, deputizing workers to go into workplaces and educate workers and employers about safety standards during COVID-19.
  • Enforce MN Statute 182.676 in which any employer with more than 25 workers must have a joint labor-management safety committee made up of at least 50% workers. 

Taking these steps and others will ensure that the frontline experts in workplace safety – the workers themselves – are empowered to ensure that workplaces open back up in a way that is safe for workers and the broader public.