Healthcare unions demand OSHA infectious disease standard

Despite what you might hear from business lobbyists about alleged “overregulation,” insiders understand that OSHA seldom issues a regulation unless pushed by worker advocates. Although there are thousands of toxic chemicals in use in industry, regulations only cover a few dozen – usually in response to lobbying or lawsuits by labor unions and public health organizations. Nurses and health care workers have been waiting more than a decade for a workplace safety standard governing infectious diseases, and the pandemic has been the last straw: three unions have filed suit demanding that OSHA lay out what employers must do to protect health care workers.

OSHA began exploring an infectious disease standard in 2009, responding to a petition by health care worker unions during the swine flu epidemic. The 2014 Ebola scare strengthened the case for action, but after President Trump’s 2016 election OSHA dropped the subject. Now, after dozens of hospital and nursing home employees have died from COVID-19 while caring for the ill, workers are no longer willing to wait.

AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), AFT (American Federation of Teachers), and the WSNA (Washington State Nurses Association) – each of which represent substantial numbers of health care workers – filed suit. The suit demands that OSHA prepare and issue an occupational safety and health standard protecting workers exposed to infectious diseases in the workplace.

Please pray for the safety of our health care workers, and rapid action by OSHA to keep them safe.

As OSHA dithers, Virginia and DC move to protect workers from Covid

Workers in supermarkets, transit systems, farms and especially health care facilities continue to serve under high risk of exposure to covid infection, yet OSHA refuses to issue a workplace safety and health standard to protect workers on the job. Thanks to dedicated coalitions in Virginia and Washington DC, however, some state and local authorities are stepping up to the plate. Responding to appeals from the Virginia AFL-CIO and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (and many others, including the Catholic Labor Network), on July 15 the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted an emergency temporary standard setting out what employers must do to protect employees from covid infection on the job. Doris Crouse-Mays, President of the Virginia AFL-CIO stated, “Finally, Virginia has demonstrated that it values workers. We now have standards that will protect workers, families, and communities by keeping them as safe as possible during this unprecedented time.”

For the Catholic Labor Network, the fight now shifts to the District of Columbia, where Council Member Elissa Sliverman has introduced the Protecting Businesses and Workers from Covid-19 Emergency Amendment Act of 2020. We are part of a coalition of labor and community organizations urging the DC Council to adopt the legislation and ensure safer working conditions for those employed in the District.

The Pandemic, the Economic Freeze, and the American Worker

Aside from the elderly and retired who are most likely to suffer fatal complications, the covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have struck no segment of American society harder than the American working class. It was a grim irony, therefore, that federal social distancing guidelines expired quietly on May 1, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker – because for American workers, the hurt is just beginning. The guidelines were replaced by a set of recommendations to governors of the various states, who must make the decision which enterprises remain closed in the interest of public safety and which are permitted to reopen in the interest of economic recovery.

How have workers been specially impacted by covid-19? On the one hand are several categories of workers who remain on the job and face excessive risk of exposure to the virus. Bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, and especially health care workers continue to serve the public and consequently risk infection every time they greet a passenger, accept a payment or move a patient. On the other are those who work in crowded production and distribution facilities, from meatpacking plants to Amazon distribution warehouses. Though not exposed to the public, the infection of a single worker can rapidly spread across the shopfloor – as has been witnessed repeatedly at pork and chicken processing facilities. Despite calls from trade unions and occupational health experts, OSHA has made no effort to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering covid-19 safety hazards in the workplace, leaving workers on their own. Unions like the UFCW (groceries and meatpacking), SEIU and NNU (health care), and ATU and TWU (mass transit) are among those who represent large numbers of workers at elevated risk of infection.

On the other hand are tens of millions of workers who have been forcibly idled by the shutdown. As of the end of April, some 30 million workers had filed for unemployment benefits, with the official unemployment rate nearing 15% (the true rate is almost certainly far higher, as this number does not include those who have given up looking for work out of despair). Layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately fallen on the working classes: many college graduates who usually work in offices have transitioned to doing their jobs from home via the internet, but that’s not available to a high school graduate working in a factory or restaurant. While about 8% of college graduates are reported as unemployed, about one in five of those with a high school diploma or less have been sidelined. The impact has been especially hard on those employed by airlines, hotels, food service, and entertainment venues, where most of the jobs vanished overnight. Unions such as UNITE HERE (hotels and food service), ALPA and AFA (airlines), and IATSE, AFM and Actors’ Equity (entertainment) are among those who represent large numbers of workers who have been furloughed and face elevated risk of economic ruin.

While the government was abysmally slow in preparing for covid-19 to reach our shores during the weeks after it was reported spreading in Wuhan, Congress and the President moved surprisingly quickly to vote economic relief for the first phase of the economic crisis. While some of the funds approved through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) followed the European model of subsidizing firms to retain idled employees – the PPP or Paycheck Protection Program – the bulk was distributed in individual payments to taxpayers and/or through the unemployment insurance (UI) system. Unemployment benefit coverage was expanded to cover large categories of workers who aren’t usually eligible because they don’t pay into the UI system, such as Uber drivers who are classified as independent contractors or employees of Catholic Churches and schools.

But the relief package does nothing to replace employer-paid health insurance, leaving millions of workers at risk of losing access to health care. It still leaves significant numbers of workers unprotected and potentially destitute, especially the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in our farms and kitchens who perform some of the economy’s least desirable work at low wages in the best of times. And perhaps most gravely, the income supports that do exist were set to expire during the Summer, anticipating a short “V-shaped” recession with a rapid economic rebound. It’s becoming clearer that this will almost certainly not be the case. This leaves American workers in a bind, balancing a risk of the coronavirus if they return to their place of work with a guaranteed loss of necessary income and health insurance if they do not.

Of course, some of those jobs will be gone in any event. With the coronavirus still killing 2,000 people a day, many Americans will shy away from shopping centers, hotels, bars and theatres for some time to come. We can expect major economic dislocation as the weaker retailers and restaurants close their doors forever, and double-digit unemployment enduring into 2021 at least.

The Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for “the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matt 25) through this terrible health crisis and year of economic agony. We will work with the nation’s trade unions to rebuild as the recovery proceeds, and promote safer workplaces that limit worker exposure to covid-19. We believe that the desperate need for a national paid sick leave policy has become clear to all, so that workers will no longer have to choose between feeding their families and infecting their colleagues with a communicable disease. And we anticipate that a major new jobs program will be on the agenda in 2021. Dare we dream, as the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si approaches, that a Green New Deal with a just transition for workers currently employed in the carbon economy is on the horizon?

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).

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.

Why Unions? DC Area Workers Speak, Catholics Respond

Why Unions? Area Workers Speak Out

Workers and the Church in the Washington DC Area


  • Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network
  • Tenae Stover, LSG Sky Chefs Cook at National Airport and UNITE HERE Local 23 Bargaining Committee Member
  • Jesus Salazar, EMI Custodial Services and SEIU Local 32BJ Contract Action Team
  • John Carr, Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

Recently, Washington DC custodians represented by the union SEIU 32BJ won major improvements in their wages and working conditions when they settled a new contract for servicing DC-area commercial office buildings. Meanwhile, airline food service workers across the country, including at Washington National Airport, have joined the union UNITE HERE and are fighting for a living wage and affordable health care. Join us Wednesday January 22, 5pm, at Georgetown University to hear from the workers themselves about their work and their unions. Afterward, commentary from Clayton Sinyai of the Catholic Labor Network and John Carr of the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life will reflect on how the workers’ testimony reflects Catholic Social Teaching on work and the economy.

Wednesday, January 22
Georgetown University
Mortara Building
3600 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20057

Catholic Charities Delegation Tours DC Sheet Metal Workers’ Training Center

The construction sector was the original “gig economy” where every job was temporary, lasting the duration of a building project. But construction unions figured out more than a century ago how turn these temporary jobs into family-supporting careers. Unions and contractors agreed to pool resources to train and maintain a skilled workforce, dispatched on request from a hiring hall. It’s still a great path to the middle class, and that’s why a delegation from the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities recently visited the Sheet Metal Workers’ training center for a tour.

Carlos Gutierrez, Bridget Maley, and Melida Chacon toured the facility, from the welding lab outfitted with Local Exhaust Ventilation to protect students from exposure to welding fumes to the AutoCAD (Computer Aided Design) computer lab. They also learned how the union recruits apprentices and provides health insurance coverage and pension benefits for those entering the trade.

Construction unions bargain agreements with an entire group of construction companies at a time who commit to use union labor, calling the hiring hall for additional workers when necessary. For each hour they employ a union construction worker they make a per capita contribution to a series of trust funds – one to run the training program, another to purchase health insurance for employees, and yet another into a pension fund for the workers’ retirement. Each trust fund is managed by a joint board of contractor and union representatives. With this system, every contractor has access to workers when needed, while workers can move from one employer to another with portable benefits.

Applicants take a written test and interview for available openings (each construction trade has its own calendar). The trust fund will be investing tens of thousands of dollars per apprentice to train them, so they want to be sure that incoming candidates are committed and have good prospects of completion. Those accepted will spend a few weeks per year in the classroom, while spending the bulk of their time on the job working under the supervision of experienced tradesmen and tradeswomen. Rather than accumulating student debt, the apprentices earn while they learn, paid on a scale that climbs toward the full rate as they accumulate experience.

The trades are interested in diversifying their ranks, actively seeking to recruit more women and people of color. They look forward to working with Catholic Charities to identify candidates for tomorrow’s construction workforce.

Theologian: Catholic Social Teaching Could Break Impasse on Paid Family Leave

Paid family leave is a major policy priority for both the Catholic Church and organized labor. “Every other industrialized country has a policy ensuring that parents can have a paid break whenever they have a child, and polls suggest widespread support for such a policy. Yet competing paid-family-leave bills introduced in this year’s Congress have stalled, continuing almost a decade of legislative impasse,” explains Catholic University of America theologian David Cloutier in a compelling recent Commonweal essay. What’s more, he argues, each political party is promoting a solution rooted in one element of Catholic Social Teaching while neglecting another.

Republican proposals for family leave, Cloutier says, generally allow individuals to borrow from their own social security or retirement accounts to care for a new child – but that means delaying retirement or reducing benefits later. This imposes a real hardship for low-income workers; the proposals contain no element of solidarity, no cost-sharing in which those of us who are more fortunate help those who are less so. The Democratic proposals, in contrast, vastly expand the type and number of “qualified caregiving” costs (arguably including “self-care”) eligible for subsidy up to sixty days per year and is funded by taxpayers generally – there’s not a lot of evidence of subsidiarity in the program. Cloutier concludes,

In their current approaches to paid family leave, our two major political parties display their failure to understand that solidarity and subsidiarity work in tandem. Democrats try to impose solidarity, while Republicans try to escape it. Republicans confuse subsidiarity with atomistic individualism, while Democrats ignore the appropriate complexity of shaping a civil order in pursuit of genuinely shared goods. It is not that Democrats are the “solidarity party” and Republicans the “subsidiarity party”; each misunderstands not only the other’s principle but also the one it pretends to own. The overall result is a lack of action that hurts the most vulnerable. Catholic social teaching might suggest a way out of this impasse, but it would require a fundamental reorientation on the part of both sides of our polarized country.

CLICK HERE to read The Paid Family Leave Impasse: How Catholic Social Teaching Can Help.