New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Courthouse News Service Warren Joins NYC Workers on Virus Front Lines to Strengthen Protections by Amanda Ottaway

Warren Joins NYC Workers on Virus Front Lines to Strengthen Protections

MANHATTAN (CN) — A pharmacy technician and a supermarket cashier. A crane operator and an Uber driver.

Joining with labor organizers and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday in a virtual town hall, essential workers told the New York City Council that its response to the novel coronavirus should include a new Bill of Rights.

“Now it’s so much clearer how much everyone else relies on your work,” Warren said to the workers. “The rest of America needs to have your back, and that’s what the Worker Bill of Rights is all about.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the Big Apple harder than any other city in the United States. Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who ended her bid for the presidential nomination just four days after the city confirmed its first case of the virus on March 1, has been working on a plan to protect the workforce.

“What’s the thing that would make you feel most valued and protected in your workplace?” Warren asked the workers on the Zoom call, which city Councilman Brad Lander later said included 500 on Zoom and another 1,000 viewers on Facebook. 

Warren and her Bay Area colleague, Representative Ro Khanna, have proposed an Essential Workers Bill of Rights at the federal level as well. They’re calling on Congress to pass the measure in the next Covid-19 relief package.

“Kindness,” said Christine Merola, a cashier at a Stop & Shop supermarket. “We’re all in this together.”

Luis Torres, who works at a Chipotle in Manhattan, said he doesn’t want to be fired for contracting the virus and staying home from work.

“I’d like to see some sort of protection for the workers in case they get sick,” he said.

Torres’ point is important for two reasons, Warren noted: workers’ rights and public health. 

“We don’t want people showing up for work if they’re sick,” she said. 

Jessica Yance, a crane operator and Teamster, said testing hasn’t been as available to her co-workers as they would like. 

“For us to have the same medical attention that, say, an NYPD or sanitation worker would get, that would make me feel up to par,” Yance told Warren. 

Merola said the grocery store where she works has free testing and child care for employees. 

Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, said the bills are in the best interest of the nation in the long run.

“We do have the ability to do this. We do have many options,” she said. “Is it going to be costly now? Yes, But if we don’t do it, it will be that much more costly far into the future, with so much more damage done to workers, families and these entire communities.”

For example, if people can’t take paid sick leave, she explained, they will spread the virus — not just to their co-workers, but to whole communities.

“The sad truth is that workers in this country have had little to no power for far too long,” Allegretto said in a phone interview Thursday. “You simply cannot run an efficient, good economy without having any worker voice, and of course that has been brought to the forefront here in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

Warren logged off after about 25 minutes for a congressional vote. Lander, a co-sponsor of one of the bills in the City Council’s bill of rights package introduced earlier this week, took over.

He introduced majority leader Laurie Cumbo, who sponsored a bill in the package for “essential pay” — requiring employers to pay an extra $30 for shifts of up to four hours and $75 for a shift over eight hours. Cumbo said workers have increased expenses as a result of the pandemic, including child care, since schools are closed. 

New York City’s essential workers “never really saw themselves as a front line soldier in germ warfare,” Cumbo said Thursday on the Zoom call. 

The essential-pay bill “is not meant to put anyone out of business,” Cumbo said, noting that mom-and-pop stores and nonprofits are more strapped for cash than companies like Amazon.

“Equity is what it’s all about.” 

Councilman Ben Kallos co-sponsored a bill in the package with Lander and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson that calls for just-cause firing protection for workers. He referenced the city’s tradition of applauding essential workers at 7 p.m. every evening. 

“The reality is, we need to do more than clap,” he said. 

Jessica Yance, the crane operator, offered a sobering perspective.

“From the political side, and from the company side, we just don’t matter,” she said. “There’s no choice but to come to work. We have to keep feeding our families.” 

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