Labor fights for critical workers

By Sheri Williams

As the Sacramento region begins to re-open businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, the Sacramento Central Labor Council is fighting to ensure essential workers will have necessary rights and protections.

In May, following the lifting of social restrictions imposed by Governor Gavin Newsom to stop the spread of the deadly disease, some restaurants, retail and other commercial ventures in Sacramento began opening their doors and calling workers back.

But many of these businesses have failed to put in place policies to protect workers as they return, and have also failed in some instances to provide basic protections such as masks and access to sanitizers.

“As we return to work, there can be no greater priority than protecting those who are literally risking their lives for a paycheck,” said SCLC executive director Fabrizio Sasso. “There is no instance in which the sale of a cup of coffee or a pair of sneakers is more important than the life of a vulnerable worker, and we are fighting to ensure that every person on the job during this pandemic has the equipment and protections they need to be safe.”

To ensure that, the Labor Council is working to secure the passage by both the Sacramento City Council and the County Board of Supervisors of a package of worker protections aimed not only at setting baselines for keeping employees safe, but ensuring swift and meaningful punishments for employers who risk the safety of their staff.

To that end, the rules the Labor Council is proposing would require businesses to return any federal aid money they receive from the CARES Act if they fail to protect workers. The city and county combined are receiving about $300 million in federal funds, some of which will go to help the recovery of local businesses.

The proposed ordinance would also require job protections and increased emergency leave provisions, and prevent employers from retaliating against employees who stand up for their rights.

Under the proposed rules, employers would be required to give workers paid time off if they needed to self-quarantine, or if a family member needed help to quarantine. The paid time off would also be available to a parent that needed to care for a child because of closed childcare facilities, and vulnerable workers such as those over age 65 who are more vulnerable to serious infections of COVID-19.

In addition, the ordinances would require businesses to submit plans for how they will protect workers, including providing personal protective gear and hand washing and sanitizing stations. Those plans would be enforceable through city and county code departments.

“Enforcement is a crucial part of this plan,” said Sasso. “We need teeth in the laws so that employers don’t think they can ignore them.”

Sasso said the ordinance also calls for employees to have the right to refuse work if they feel it puts their health and wellbeing at risk. But workers who were laid off due to the pandemic would also have rights when it comes to being rehired. Sasso said the Labor Council has received reports that some employers are attempting to block higher wage earners from returning to jobs, and instead trying to replace them with those who are paid less. The proposed ordinance would allow workers who believe they have been discriminated against because of their wage scale to bring action in court.