Covid-19 and worker health: Reflections of a Catholic Occupational Health Physician

A guest contribution from Rosemary Sokas, MD, MOH

As Catholics, we believe that working is a sacred act of co-creation.  We believe in the intrinsic dignity of the person performing work.  The covid-19 pandemic circles the globe like a crown of thorns, amplifying the need to put our beliefs into action.

First, it sickens and kills workers in sadly predictable ways. Frontline healthcare workers, first responders, nursing home and homecare workers – not to mention agricultural, food processing, transportation, grocery, pharmacy, and delivery workers — have all been asked to place their own lives and those of their families at risk. They and their families are dying.

Despite SARS, MERS, the H1N1 pandemic, Ebola and countless post-9/11 tabletop exercises, our just-in-time healthcare non-system, public health infrastructure, and basic labor laws have failed workers. Employers largely failed to provide the engineering, administrative and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers – these differ by industry, but should have included basic hygiene measures, physical barriers, ventilation, and reusable as well as disposable forms of personal protective equipment that could have reduced the impact of shortages. What’s more, many have punished workers for speaking out and suspended them for bringing protective equipment from home. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to implement even the most basic safety inspections until announcing a compliance directive on April 13, and still fails to enforce employers’ general duty to provide a workplace safe from infection to workers in non-health care facilities, despite thousands of worker complaints and worksites with hundreds of infected workers.  The need for OSHA to enact an Emergency Temporary Standard has been widely noted, but that standard must address all workers deemed essential as well as all potential routes of exposure.

Many workers still lack paid sick leave and any form of job security. The most vulnerable earn poverty wages and lack health insurance. Hundreds of poultry and meat processing workers across Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Colorado, South Dakota and elsewhere are infected and seeding outbreaks in rural areas.  Farmworker and labor organizations are desperately petitioning federal agencies to improve work, housing, and transportation hygiene measures to protect the nation’s farmworkers, including H2A workers.

African American and Latino communities have been hardest hit, with death rates more than double that of the general population in those states and cities where demographic information is available; national data are missing.  African American and Latino workers are disproportionately represented in the low-wage, high-risk jobs that have been deemed essential.  On April 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for “critical infrastructure” workers that, unfortunately, further increases the risk to these workers.  The guidelines target, among others, workers in food preparation and agriculture.  Despite abundant evidence of viral transmission from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals, CDC now recommends these exposed or infected workers be kept in the workforce, given masks, and told they “should maintain 6 feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit” (emphasis added). The document ignores family and co-worker concerns.

This failure to recognize that workers have intrinsic human worth beyond their functional utility is unacceptable.  We need to protect the workers who provide essential services. This requires listening to workers to identify and address their concerns. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has communicated with its members, other workers and state governments, and negotiated approaches to protect workers and customers while helping to promote essential food production and distribution. Governors and mayors are listening – grocery workers are eligible for benefits provided to other essential workers in some states, and a number of cities and counties are requiring measures to reduce risks, including having customers wear masks. CDC would benefit from input from the front lines; giving worker representatives a seat at the table would be an important start.

What about those workers who have lost their jobs in the economic wake of the pandemic? Workers are struggling with an overwhelmed unemployment compensation system and many are dealing with the loss of their employer-funded health insurance.  Despite Congressional efforts to improve unemployment benefits and to extend them to non-traditional workers, including the self-employed and gig workers, undocumented workers and others in the margins are eligible for none of this assistance. The long-term health consequences of involuntary job loss are sadly predictable as well.  Risks include increased rates of heart attacks, strokes, all-cause mortality, substance abuse, mental health disorders, homicides and suicides. There is a better way. The short-time work program Germany and other E.U. countries use to reduce hours but prevent unemployment offers population health benefits that go beyond retention of health insurance and continued income support. German workers, classified as “not working” rather than “unemployed”, do not sustain the increased mortality seen among unemployed medium and low-skilled U.S. workers. We need to restructure our current approach to unemployment insurance to use funding to support continued employment.

Rosemary Sokas is professor of human science at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies and professor of family medicine at the School of Medicine, and previously served as Chief Medical Officer at OSHA and as Associate Director for Science at NIOSH.

Covid-19 and American Workers

The Covid-19 epidemic has impacted everyone in the United States in some way or another, but its impact on many categories of workers has been especially brutal. Some sectors, such as air transportation, hotels and restaurants, are virtually shut down, leaving workers without a paycheck. Meanwhile, workers employed in mass transit, grocery stores and especially hospitals and nursing homes are exposed to severe risk of infection, illness and death.

Let’s start with the unemployed. UNITE HERE, which represents more than 300,000 workers in hotels, restaurants and institutional cafeterias, reports that 98% of its members are out of work. The grand hotels of major cities and casinos of Las Vegas have gone dark, but those aren’t the only UNITE HERE members affected. Airline bookings have fallen through the floor. That’s led to furloughs and layoffs for flight attendants, pilots, ticket agents and ramp workers – and the kitchen workers who pack meals for airline flights. As readers of this blog well know, many of these workers also belong to UNITE HERE. Airline, hotel and restaurant workers surely have a long and difficult road ahead: with financial concerns and residual fears of infection, it will take years before Americans resume their pre-pandemic travel and entertainment spending levels.

While record unemployment affects much of the workforce, a few critical sectors are witnessing skyrocketing demand – and with it, skyrocketing risk of worker exposure to the coronavirus. Witness the challenges of supermarket cashiers and clerks: on April 13 the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) reported that covid-19 infections had killed at least 30 supermarket workers. Amazon warehouse workers don’t have a union, so there’s no workers’ representative to share numbers, but infections there have resulted in worker protests and walkouts. And of course no one faces a greater risk of infection than the doctors, nurses and techs treating covid-19 victims in our nation’s hospitals. Nearly 10,000 health care workers have been infected by the virus, making them a shocking 10-20% of the coronavirus cases. (Fortunately, many of these workers are young and have no prior health conditions, so there are fewer hospitalizations and fatalities than that number might suggest.)

Bus drivers and subway operators face the worst of both worlds. Reduced service means fewer hours and fewer jobs, and many riders are expected to steer clear of crowded buses and trains for the foreseeable future. But our metro employees continue to carry those at-risk health care, supermarket, and distribution center workers to and from their jobs, and mass transit is not configured for social distancing. The result? At least 75 transit workers killed by covid-19 despite reduced service. It’s especially bad in New York City, home of both America’s largest mass transit system and the pandemic’s domestic epicenter.

Please pray for the unemployed and those whose jobs place them at elevated risk for infection. And urge OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect everyone from unnecessary risk on the job.

Catholic Church/School Employees covered by CARES Act

I’ve received a lot of messages recently from furloughed employees of Catholic institutions asking if they are eligible for Unemployment Compensation. This is a more complicated question than it should be, but if you are furloughed because of the pandemic the answer is yes.

My correspondents are confused because they have suddenly learned that their employer, as a religious institution, has elected NOT to pay unemployment insurance payroll taxes. Under normal circumstances, that would mean that laid-off workers were not eligible for unemployment benefits.

The CARES Act changed that, at least for workers who have lost their job due to covid-19. Although the media coverage focused on expansion of UI to cover gig workers and independent contractors, the language used covers employees of Church institutions. This much has been clearly noted by the Department of Labor and by the USCCB General Counsel. (It’s also the case that Catholic institutions with fewer than 500 employees can take advantage of the SBA small business loans on offer that will be forgiven if used to retain employees during the crisis.)

That said, the situation points to an injustice routinely suffered by employees of religious institutions, including Catholic ones: protection from economic catastrophe through a layoff. As the Bishops noted in their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All, “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary [347].” Those working for the Church have typically foregone higher wages and benefits in the for-profit economy in order to pursue their calling. They should not also be asked to court financial disaster because their employer prefers to save a few dollars a week in unemployment insurance premiums. Unless they elect to use these funds to create a self-financed system of unemployment benefits for their employees, Church institutions should pay into UI like everyone else. Their employees deserve no less.

Catholic Health System Nurses Volunteer for COVID Duty

A remarkable story in the Buffalo News caught my eye a couple of weeks back, featuring the selfless union workforce of the city’s Catholic Health System hospitals.

When Catholic Health asked employees last week if they would volunteer to work with Covid-19 patients, 150 employees quickly said yes.

That number jumped to 500 on Friday and rose to 700 on Saturday.

By Sunday, some 900 Catholic Health employees – respiratory therapists, food service workers, housekeepers, registered nurses, nurse’s aids, secretaries, X-ray technicians and receptionists among them.

“Here’s the part that makes me emotional,” said Mark Sullivan, Catholic Health’s president and CEO. “They volunteered and thought in the beginning that they weren’t going to get paid. They were going to take on the shifts for free.”

Maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. After all, the nurses, techs and others staffing the hospital feel a strong calling to their work. And not only that: they feel appreciated and respected by management. That wasn’t always the case.

The Catholic Health System (CHS) in Buffalo and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has built a strong labor-management partnership that grew out of contentious bargaining in 2016. For the past four years, the two CWA locals that represent nurses, techs, clerical, and service workers in three Buffalo hospitals have navigated a relationship-building process with CHS management facilitated by Michigan State University. In this moment of crisis, the partnership has paid great dividends for the health system.

One of the CHS hospitals, St. Joseph’s, was designated as a Coronavirus center. When the nurses’ union and management got word of this, they immediately put together a labor-management meeting to figure out how to implement the needed changes across the system. As a Coronavirus center, they had to find workers that would volunteer to stay in the hospital, discuss pay differentials, and be more flexible about job titles and responsibilities than in ordinary times. The relationship of trust and transparency between the union and management meant within two days, the unions were already putting out the call for volunteers, and were swamped with nurses stepping up.

“It’s times like this when people shine,” said Deborah Arnet, an RN and president of CWA Local 1133. Though she acknowledged that members were anxious about the potential wave of sick people about to come to the hospital, she was proud of the numbers of union members stepping up in the crisis.

Martin Luther King and the Memphis Sanitation Strike, 52 years later

Fifty-two years ago today, on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the once-controversial civil rights leader who had a dream is mourned by all Americans. His contributions to making our nation more just and democratic can scarcely be exaggerated; perhaps no other American had such an indispensable role in breaking down the racist Jim Crow segregation that marred the states of the old Confederacy and even beyond. And some segments of the American populace – such as African-Americans, Christians, and pacifists – identify in a special way with King’s life and work, and feel a special loss on this day.

Among those segments is the American labor movement, especially those of us motivated by our faith to seek justice in the workplace. While many today have forgotten what brought King to Memphis that fateful spring, it was in fact a strike. Memphis sanitation workers, most of whom were African-American, had organized with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the primary labor union for state and local public employees. After two of their number were crushed to death in one of the garbage trucks, where they were sheltering from the rain, some 1,300 members of AFSCME Local 1733 launched what would be a long and bitter strike, punctuated by violence on the part of the public authorities.

Want to learn more about the strike? Check out ‘I Am a Man’: The ugly Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that led to MLK’s assassination in the Washington Post. Or better still, pick up Michael Honey’s book Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2007).

Kennedy Center wins taxpayer bailout – then furloughs orchestra without pay

The Kennedy Center is earning headlines, and not in the usual good way. The Center begged taxpayers for money to tide them over through the Covid-19 pandemic, and got a sweet $25 million injection in the stimulus package to cover their bills. Within hours of winning the money, Kennedy Center management spun around and told the National Symphony Orchestra members they are to be sent home without pay. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM), their union, says this is illegal and is defending their contract in court. I’ve heard a story much like this before and it ends badly for Kennedy Center management: see Matt 18:22-34 for details.

FLOC scores win against guest worker exploitation

The H2A guest worker program allows American growers to import guest workers from abroad. The law spells out a lot of rights that these guest workers are due: the sponsoring employer is supposed to provide transportation, housing and meals in addition to the wage promised. However, guest workers are subject to deportation if they displease their sponsor — so as FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) often explains, unless there’s a union representing them, they don’t necessarily get what they’ve been promised.

FLOC has been organizing farmworkers at OJ Smith Farms, a North Carolina tobacco grower employing workers recruited by labor contractor Salvador Barajas. Barajas recruits guest workers for several North Carolina farms, and these growers have failed to keep up their end of the bargain. FLOC has been demanding that the Department of Labor crack down on the scofflaw contractor and growers.

First, the good news — DOL finally slapped Barajas with nearly $500,000 in fines for failing to provide meals and transportation for the workers, with more than $200,000 being returned to the workers themselves. And he’s been banned from participating in the H2A program for three years.

Unfortunately, the DOL chose to let the growers go scott-free. Worse, the OJ Smith Farms apparently used the occasion to fire union supporters in an effort to thwart the organizing campaign.

FLOC is calling on tobacco companies that purchase from OJ Smith and the other growers to take action. “Companies like Reynolds American, Alliance One, and Universal Leaf all have standards they claim their growers must comply with but none of them has taken any action to support these brave workers who stepped forward and called out human right abuses in their supply chains,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. It’s high time they did.

New Orthodox Church social document embraces right to organize in unions

A recent article in Commonweal — “The Orthodox Church & Social Teaching” — just alerted me to a new social teaching document issued by the Greek Orthodox Church in America with the approval of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople himself. FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church is heavy on economic justice, among other themes. See, for example, paragraph 37:

Against all such practices, the Orthodox Church will insist upon the high dignity of labor and upon the inviolable sanctity of each person, and that “The laborer is worthy of his hire” (1 Timothy 5:18). Moreover, no one should labor without respite: the Church insists that a just economy or business is one that insures not only the reasonable productivity and respectable pay of workers, but their opportunities for sufficient rest from work, for recreation, and for restoration of body and soul with their families, friends, and communities. It must require of every society with the means to do so that it protect its workers—both documented and undocumented—against abuse, humiliation, neglect, and cynical exploitation. It must ask of governments that they pass laws that make it possible for employers to provide jobs but not to treat labor as a mere commodity or business expense without any special moral status. Every advanced economy must, if it would be just, make it a matter of law and custom that those businesses that enjoy incorporation in nations that provide trustworthy legal systems, functioning financial institutions, and basic civil freedoms must be willing, as part of their social compact with those nations, to comply with laws and practices that provide workers with humane conditions and living wages, and that forbid complicity in corrupt systems of structural poverty in other nations. This entails laws that ensure that, even in establishing facilities in the developing world, such businesses must be held to the same standards of conduct toward labor that obtain in the developed world; and the ability of businesses to manufacture, market, and trade goods, or otherwise to participate in the global market, must be made contingent upon just labor practices. The Church must also call for laws that do not subject undocumented workers to the terror of legal penalty when seeking redress for abuses on the part of their employers. At the same time, the Church should encourage corporations to invest humanely in depressed parts of the world, and to try to provide opportunities where none previously existed; it asks only that such businesses must be held to standards of conduct that respect the inherent dignity of every human person, and that they make their investments in developing economies in order to improve the conditions of the poor rather than to profit from their poverty.

I would have thought this would be a natural place to note the role of labor unions, but of course, not everyone thinks like me. However, paragraph 63 notes the right to organize in the context of inalienable civil rights of the human person:

Then there are those civil rights that must be regarded as the universal and inalienable possessions of all persons: the right to vote for or against those exercising political power, equal access for all persons to political representation, freedom of association, freedom of religion, the right of peaceful assembly and protest, freedom of workers to form unions…

This language in my mind recalls Gaudium et Spes, whose paragraph 68 observes:

Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal.

It’s beautiful to see our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox communion reaffirming their commitment to economic justice and the right to organize in a period when both are under threat in secular history!

Georgetown steps up for service workers displaced by COVID-19

Will other Catholic colleges follow suit?

COVID-19 shutdowns in the food service industry are devastating working families across the country. As Catholics, we believe that we will be judged on whether we have fed, clothed and sheltered “one of these least brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:31-46). That’s why we are pleased to share that Georgetown University has performed a special act of witness and charity in this time of fear, intervening to protect the livelihood of displaced campus food service workers.

When the university closed the campus to prevent the spread of coronavirus among students and staff, Aramark and Bon Appetit, the food service contractors who staff the campus cafeterias and restaurants, began laying off employees. However, the union and the students informed Georgetown administrators what was happening — and the university’s leadership took action. They met with the contractors and hammered out an agreement ensuring that these workers would be paid through the scheduled end of the semester.

This is an act of evangelization that every Jesuit, and indeed Catholic, university and college can readily follow. Unlike airlines, restaurants and sports and entertainment venues, colleges and universities have not yet suffered a catastrophic loss of revenue limiting their capacity to provide succor for their employees, whether direct or indirect.

The Catholic Labor Network has addressed letters to Catholic university presidents across the country, sharing Georgetown’s powerful example and urging them to follow suit. Would you like to help us get the word out by contacting Catholic colleges and universities in your area? Email me at to take part in this effort.


Maryland pastors, parishes call on state to expand sick leave eligibility during COVID-19 crisis

The terrible COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting the lives of Americans across the nation, but falling with special severity on low-income workers. According to the 2018 Federal Reserve Board Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making, four in ten Americans lack the savings to cover an unexpected $400 expense – yet millions of these workers stand to lose much more as COVID-19 shutters shops and restaurants, darkens casinos and stadiums, grounds airplanes, and closes offices.

While most Maryland workers enjoy paid sick leave under state law, some workers are excluded from coverage, and countless state residents who are not ill are facing an economic crisis due to emergency closures. As Catholic Christians, we know we will be judged on whether we have fed, clothed and sheltered “one of these least brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:31-46). That’s why a growing number of Maryland parishes are joining other worker and community organizations and calling for the state to adopt the following emergency measures:

  • Employees covered by the Healthy Working Families Act (HWFA), Maryland’s earned sick leave law, should be allowed to use their earned leave where they cannot work due to school closures, business closure, or because they or a family member has been quarantined by a public health official.
  • Coverage under the HWFA should extend to all temporary workers.
  • All workers whose jobs require significant public contact and those working with vulnerable populations should be immediately covered.
  • The waiting period to use sick leave under the HWFA should be eliminated, and the maximum number of days employees can use leave should be extended to 14 days.

Thanks to Fr. Ty Hullinger and the community at Baltimore’s St. Anthony of Padua Parish for leading the way with this letter addressed to Governor Larry Hogan and the parish’s state legislative delegation. We congratulate all the Maryland parishes that have taken these steps and urge others to follow their lead!