Unions, civil rights and other groups rallied outside of a North Baltimore Safeway store in support of state legislation that would prevent unsafe practices by employers during the Covid pandemic.
Aimed at protecting workers who face the public on a daily basis, the bill would guarantee enhanced pay, safe working conditions, free testing, sick leave and the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.
The measure makes demands on employers, but ultimately, according to one speaker, it will benefit everyone.
“If it’s good for the vulnerable, it’s good for business,” said Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore NAACP, part of a coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations pushing for the Maryland Essential Workers Act.
Gesturing to the packages of face masks on tables next to him, Little announced that the NAACP was donating 5,000 masks to Safeway employees. Another coalition member, 1199 SEIU (Service Employees International Union), set out a table of free hand sanitizer.
Right to Refuse
The proposed law would provide support to workers who are highly exposed to the virus, but who typically have little power to demand protection from it, according to Djawa Hall, SEIU’s Baltimore and Washington political director.
Hall said the bill would provide extra “hazard pay” in workers’ paychecks, create a statewide database for industries to be monitored, and ensure there is adequate reporting on testing and new Covid cases.
Especially important, Hall said, is a provision giving employees the right to refuse certain work if it seems unsafe from a Covid standpoint or there isn’t adequate protection.
“We’ve heard stories not just from health care but other industries where workers didn’t feel they had adequate protection, and yet they’re in a position where they have to do their work or they lose their paychecks,” he said.
“Hard on the front lines”
The legislation, which does not have a bill number yet, is being sponsored by two Prince George’s County lawmakers, Delegate Derrick E. Davis and Senator Malcolm L. Augustine.
Ebony Harris, a Safeway employee who took to the microphone briefly, said she worries constantly about her own and her family’s safety.
“It’s real hard being on the front lines, and I have had to make a lot of sacrifices for this job,” Harris said. “But I’ve been here a long time, and love what I do and my fellow employees here.”