Wearing a blue collared shirt with a GoRaleigh patch on the arm, transit operator Sherita McCullers spoke into her webcam Wednesday morning.

“It’s very scary working on the frontline,” said McCullers, a member-leader of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1328 in Raleigh. “I live in fear every day, afraid that I might take something home to my family.”

McCullers lost her godmother two weeks ago to COVID-19. Now, her brother is in the hospital fighting the same disease.  

“I know COVID-19 is real, and it’s not going away,” she said with tears in her eyes. “So I’m asking Senator Thom Tillis: We need to keep all frontline workers safe and secure. We need you to do your job and support the HEROES Act.”  

McCullers’ plea was one of several featured in “Black Workers are Heroes,” a press call hosted Wednesday morning by the state chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. This presentation served as NC State AFL-CIO’s contribution to the national organization’s day of action, the Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice.

Over the course of the call, three essential workers, a North Carolina Justice Center policy analyst, and NC State AFL-CIO president MaryBe McMillan urged Republican Senator Thom Tillis to back the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.  

“These workers feed us and take care of us,” McMillan said, referring to essential employees of color. “It’s time we take care of them.”

Passed by the House and awaiting a Senate vote, the HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) would authorize a host of federal actions related to workers’ rights and public health. It would support another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals and expand FMLA, unemployment compensation, and paid sick days. It would also set up a fund to help essential workers receive pandemic premium pay and compel employers to implement exposure control plans for COVID-19. 

Greensboro resident Jocelyn Bryant, a retired AT&T worker and president of the Triad Central Labor Council, worries for the futures of Black and brown workers–especially for women of color, she said, who already suffer from pay and wealth inequities.  

“How can they hope to retire tomorrow when they can’t afford to make ends meet today?” she said. “When the ugliness of racism, police brutality and racial injustice keeps killing Black people, how can we live if we can’t breathe?”

Bryant called the current situation for Black people a triple threat: mass unemployment, systemic racism, and a pandemic. It’s the job of elected officials to respond to these threats, Bryant said, and their work is far from over. 

“We need action by lawmakers to keep people employed now and to protect the retirement benefits we’ve earned over a lifetime of work,” she said. “That’s what the HEROES Act does.”    

Ivy Jones, a member-leader of the American Postal Workers Union Local 1078 in Raleigh, has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 27 years. The HEROES Act would allocate over $25 billion to the postal service and bail it out from the financial crisis COVID-19 has wrought, she said.

“Like me, the postal service has allowed many Blacks to be able to earn a decent living,” she said. 

Citing Republican efforts to privatize USPS, Jones said it’s no coincidence that the current administration wants to eliminate a unionized institution that provides opportunities for Black Americans. 

“The crises of a public health pandemic and economic freefall and longstanding structural racism are all connected, and Black Americans are feeling the most pain,” she said. “To solve these problems, we cannot treat them separately or deal with each individually. Addressing racism is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue.” 

William Munn, a policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project, said African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases and deaths. A new research brief from the Health Advocacy Project attributes this to the overrepresentation of Black people in “essential worker” roles and in jobs that fall into North Carolina’s Medicaid coverage gap. 

In addition, the report reads, predominantly-POC communities have fewer grocery stores and healthcare providers as well as poorer air and water quality. This has led African Americans to experience a higher rate of the comorbidities that exacerbate COVID-19. 

“To achieve health equity, we must first address societal inequities and challenge policymakers to make the best decisions for all of us,” Munn said. 

The NC State AFL-CIO is lobbying Senator Tillis specifically because his Senate colleagues believe he could be persuaded to support the HEROES Act, communications director and operations manager Jeremy Sprinkle wrote in an email to the INDY. 

“Unlike Senator Burr, Tillis is running for reelection this year, and he’s currently running a campaign commercial in which he says, ‘My job is fighting for your job. We will build this economy back, and I’ll remember who needs it the most,’” Sprinkle said. “Rebuilding the economy and helping the people who need it the most is exactly what the HEROES Act does, so we’re urging Senator Tillis to do his job and support it.”

McMillan encouraged union members and community allies to call Tillis’ office toll-free at (855) 712-9375 and urge him to back the HEROES Act.  

“We in the labor movement stand in solidarity for the racial justice, and we will continue to raise our voices until there is justice for working people black brown and white in this country,” McMillan said. “We as a country and as a people are better than this.”

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