Service workers demanded that state lawmakers better protect them from COVID-19 during a virtual lobbying event on Wednesday. 

The workers said they risk their safety in low-paying jobs deemed essential by Governor Cooper’s stay-at-home order.

Safety topped their list of concerns. 

“McDonald’s finally gave us masks after we spoke up about it,” said Rita Blalock, who works in Raleigh. “But the masks they gave us are so thin I can blow right through it—they aren’t really protecting us from anything. If McDonald’s won’t give us proper personal protective equipment, we need our elected officials to step in and help us.”

The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, many employed in places like fast foods, convenience stores, grocery stores, and big-box outlets like Walmart. In North Carolina, African Americans account for about 22 percent of the population and 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The pandemic has revealed racial fault lines across the country, scholars from Duke and N.C. Central said earlier this month, including in Durham and the Triangle. 

On Wednesday, the workers highlighted their long-running struggles for a living wage and affordable health care. They also pointed out that they don’t have the luxury of working from home and must now often interact with the public without proper protective equipment. If they get sick, many don’t have access to reliable health care.

“People of all races and backgrounds are hurting,” said Sheree Allen a Durham childcare worker. “We are demanding that the government track the impact of COVID-19 by race and come up with interventions to make sure resources are directed to highly impacted, under-served communities.”

The Digital Day of Action took place while members of Congress consider a fourth COVID-19 relief package and the General Assembly works on its own.

The big takeaway? Invest in public services on behalf of workers, not corporations.

The workers want paid sick leave no matter where they work, the expansion of health care coverage for the uninsured, personal protective equipment, and access to COVID-19 relief benefits regardless of race or immigration status. 

They were joined by elected officials, including Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson and former council member Vernetta Alston, who was recently appointed to the state House of Representatives. 

“Workers on the front lines of the pandemic need more than gratitude,” Johnson said. “They need comprehensive health care, paid sick leave, personal protective equipment, and hazard pay. Their labor has always been essential, and worker health is public health.”

Alston told the workers that the state “cannot withstand this crisis and move forward without you.”

“Your rights, your safety, and your livelihoods deserve strong action,” Alston added.

Notably absent were U.S. senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, whom Fayetteville Burger King employee Wanda Coker called out for “ignoring the voices of essential workers at this critical moment.”

Simply thanking service workers isn’t enough, said MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. They need paid sick leave, expanded health care, and protective equipment to ensure their safety. 

“And we need to pay them more by providing hazard pay and raising the minimum wage so that all workers earn enough to provide their families with the essentials they work so hard to provide for the rest of us,” McMillan said. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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