One of the more remarkable revelations that emerged at the height of the coronavirus pandemic was its adverse and disproportionate health impact on essential workers whose low-paying jobs nonetheless required daily interaction with the public.

Grocery and big box store employees, along with fast food, construction and food processing workers, were deemed an “essential” labor force by state and federal government officials. They did not have the luxury of working from home while helping to supply the public’s basic needs during the shutdown period.

This week, workers’ rights advocates throughout the state banded together and petitioned the NC Department of Labor (NCDOL) to adopt rules that will protect workers from “future public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a press release Wednesday from the NC Justice Center.

The 29-page petition was submitted on Wednesday to state labor officials by a diverse coalition of groups that include the NC chapter of the NAACP,  the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry, the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County/El Vinculo Hispano (EVH), the Western North Carolina Workers Center, the Union of Southern Service Workers, and the NC AFL-CIO.

The coalition is represented by attorneys with the NC Justice Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The petition on their behalf calls on the NCDOL “to put into place health and safety standards to protect North Carolina workers from airborne infectious diseases — a step NCDOL has yet to take nearly three years into the pandemic,” according to the release.

The workers’ rights advocates note in the petition that their members and constituents have been filing complaints with the NCDOL, drafted letters to state leaders, organized and held press conferences to make the public aware of their health concerns “since March, 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak began.”

“Many of them have also had to mourn the death of workers who lost their lives to COVID-19,” attorneys state in the petition. “They are calling on NCDOL to exercise its power to engage in rulemaking in order to protect workers in our state from COVID-19 and future airborne infectious diseases.”

The release added that as the public continues to learn more about the impact of the coronavirus on frontline workers, “particularly to Black and Latinx people who died at disproportionately high rates,” the workers’ rights advocates wants the NCDOL “to require employers to develop plans to protect their workforce when an airborne infectious disease is declared to be a public health emergency.”

The petition notes that many of the Latinx workers served by nonprofit EVH in Chatham County are employed by food processing plants—Mountaire Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson poultry processing plants located in Siler City and Sanford, along with the service and construction industries.

“Due to the working conditions in these industries, EVH’s clients are at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and other airborne infectious diseases,” attorneys state in the petition. 

“Hundreds of poultry workers and their family members in EVH’s region have been infected with COVID-19; some have died,” while being “subjected to dangerous working conditions without adequate personal protective equipment, social distancing, COVID-19 prevention information, and leave time necessary to ensure a safe workplace.”

Carol Brooke, a senior staff attorney with the NC Justice Center stated in the release that migrant workers are at disproportionately high risk for airborne infectious disease because they are housed in crowded communal situations.

“It is critical that employers take measures to protect them and the surrounding community during times of a public health emergency,” Brooke said. “We need a rule in place so the Department of Labor can enforce protections for these vulnerable workers.”

The petition wants state labor officials to implement two rules to help ensure a safer and more equitable workplace.

One proposed rule would create “protections and procedures employers should address in a plan to be implemented should a future airborne infectious disease become a public health emergency,” according to the release. 

The release also notes that employers will “tailor the plans to their worksites’ needs and consider protections related to social distancing, ventilation, cleaning, symptom screening, and more.”

The second rule “would safeguard migrant workers, their families and employers, and all who come into contact with them during a public health emergency due to an airborne infectious disease,” according to the release.”

The petition proposed additional safety measures, particularly on behalf of migrant workers, including providing face masks and hygiene supplies to those using shared housing and vehicles, expanding or rearranging sleeping quarters, and improving ventilation in shared spaces.

At the beginning, middle and end of the day, labor rights attorneys say best practice policies for employees are also good for the businesses where they work.

“By planning in advance how they will take measures to protect employee health during a future pandemic, employers in North Carolina will not only keep their workforces healthy, but they will reduce business disruption, limit absenteeism and turnover, and be able to keep their businesses running smoothly,” attorneys state in the petition. 

“Limiting transmission of an airborne infectious disease in workplaces will have a positive impact on the public health of the community,” the attorneys add. “Workers will be less likely to bring illness home from work and to the businesses and services they visit.”

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