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Let’s support and ensure the safety of workers risking so much for us

These are unprecedented times.

As our country and world confront a pandemic; as the global death toll continues to rise well into the hundreds of thousands; as brave health professionals care for the sick in hospitals with depleted safety supplies; and as our economy clings to essential but under-appreciated labor in every industry, it has become clear: frontline workers are the ones who keep our nation moving forward.

Doctors, nurses, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, custodians, food inspectors, farmworkers, transit employees, air traffic controllers, postal workers, first responders and a host of other people across our nation are risking their health and their lives to ensure the rest of us can safely stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus. We owe these workers a debt of gratitude that we may never be able to repay, but we cannot simply applaud their heroism without taking real steps to support them and ensure their safety. We have to stand up for the rights of these essential workers.

In my home state of California, up to half of our labor force is employed in essential occupations. We are hearing stories each day of how these workers need more assistance, including personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay, sick and emergency leave, safety assurances and strong workplace rights.

As one example, my district has a federal prison with one of the highest outbreaks of coronavirus in the nation. Not only is this a grave threat to the inmates who are in spaces that do not allow for sufficient social distancing, it is disastrous for the guards, all staff on the premises and our community’s health care system at large. Workers are operating without adequate PPE and resources, and when they come home from their shifts, many are sleeping in their vehicles to ensure their families are not exposed to coronavirus. These workers do not have the option to stay home and we do not have the right to make them work in unsafe, undignified conditions. I, along with California Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, have reached out to the Bureau of Prisons multiple times, urging them to step up and stop this spread.

Most recently, President Donald Trump has signed an executive order demanding that meat processing plants across the nation stay open, even as worker death tolls continue to rise. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 20 workers at these plants have already died and approximately 6,500 are infected. Workers are concerned about food safety and their own health and, while the president has mandated that these employees must keep working during this pandemic, he has not taken any clear steps to protect them. Instead, the president’s executive order shields meatpacking companies from legal liability if workers get coronavirus due to unsafe conditions.

What’s more, many meatpacking and processing workers—and many of our nation’s essential farmworkers—are immigrants. They are the same people that this administration disparages and tries to deport. Now, when the president needs their essential work, he will risk their lives and safety without clear protections. He cannot have it both ways.

If the work is essential, the people cannot be treated as expendable. We must use our federal power and resources to protect all frontline workers. In Congress, I introduced bipartisan legislation (H. Res. 913) to not only thank frontline workers for their contributions, but to direct Congress and the entire federal government to do all we can to protect these people as they risk their lives. This means securing enough PPE; providing sick leave and hazard pay; ensuring clear, enforceable workplace safety rules; and prioritizing the well-being of those on the front lines.

I have also led, with my colleague Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), the entire Congressional Hispanic Caucus in calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to extend safety protections for the farmworkers that keep our families fed. And I am working across the aisle to obtain presumptive illness status for coronavirus, so that certain workers who get sick on the job have the care and benefits they deserve. With two other members of Congress, I am leading 150 of our colleagues in demanding that any future legislation include robust rights for federal workers like VA nurses, food inspectors, transit employees and more who are uplifting our communities each day. The coronavirus relief bills we have passed thus far have made strides in increasing worker protections and funding more PPE, but we know there is much more work that needs to be done.

I am so grateful to frontline workers for their dedication, and I am grateful to the families and communities that support them. Across the nation and in my own community on California’s Central Coast, frontline workers are carrying us through this unprecedented time. Their work is essential and their safety is too. Unprecedented times call for bold action, and we must defend the health and safety of those who are risking so much for us.

Carbajal represents the 24th District of California. 

Tags Conquering Coronavirus COVID-19 Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Jim Costa Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

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