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As we all know, front line workers — like healthcare providers, first responders, pharmacists and food service workers — are not just providing lifesaving work, but through going to work are now risking their lives and their loved ones’ lives with this pandemic. This is especially true for healthcare workers, some of whom are working to exhaustion and collapse, all the while potentially exposing themselves to high viral loads.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been called a war in Italy, China, Spain and now New York. The coming pandemic peak will be especially threatening to Maine, the oldest state in the union, which has one of the highest rates of asthma in the nation. Our community should mobilize accordingly, and immediately, to support essential workers on the front lines.
Given the critical importance of these workers to all of us, Food AND Medicine and the Eastern Maine Labor Council call on our whole community and especially our elected officials, businesses, and various agencies and educational institutions to do all in their power to provide the following:
Ensuring that personal protective equipment is provided, according to best practices, to all front line workers so they can safely do their work. The responsibility for the provision of these life-saving supplies rests fully in the hands of the managers and owners, and regulations must not be relaxed to reduce costs, or save employers the burden of securing these goods.
Free housing via the option to stay for free at local hotels or colleges (who now have so many empty rooms) would allow front line workers to continue their vital work while protecting their families, particularly those workers who have children and high-risk family members at home.
Free food given to overworked front line workers will enable them to focus on their work and their safety, not on what they, or their family, are going to eat that day. Across the country, restaurants and individuals have already pitched in to help with food but more must be done.
Childcare for front line workers’ children would allow these workers to stay at work and not worry about their children. Across the country, childcare providers, schools and individuals have stepped up to provide safe childcare.
Hazard pay should be given to workers who now face far greater risk to themselves and their families, and whose commitment to us keeps them at work. Front line workers who become ill due to COVID-19 should be presumed to have been infected at work and deserve compensation sufficient to make them whole (pay, workers’ compensation and public benefits such as sick pay). They should not be forced to use sick or vacation time they have earned at work.
Support for homeless and other at-risk populations should be done using best practices and all community resources available to provide safe places for all people.
Many people and businesses are already stepping up — from employers already offering hazard pay, to neighbors calling neighbors. We are grateful to the people who have done so, and hope others will follow suit. Our government, at the local, state and federal levels, should play a pivotal role in organizing and providing funding for these measures, but we call on those who are able to give more at this time to do so, particularly large employers.
We have started a COVID-19 solidarity fund and have already received $6,000 in local contributions. Two members, who currently have steady employment, see their upcoming stimulus checks as better used being donated to this fund and have pledged to donate them.
These funds will go toward direct support for people in hard times, primarily food which, if possible, will come from Maine farmers and food producers. We ask others who are able to also donate part or all of their stimulus check in solidarity — if not this fund, then give to another fund or cause. It is unlikely this pandemic has peaked here in Maine and many of our co-workers, friends and family are in for some very hard times.
In the labor movement we have a saying that an injury to one is the concern of all. Never before in our lifetimes has this been more true than now. Solidarity is the best and most effective way to bring us all through this very difficult period.
Jack McKay is president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council and director of Food AND Medicine.