Guest Column: In reopening, worker safety must come first

Published 8:25 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Guest Column by Bill McCarthy and Pommella Wegmann

Bill McCarthy


COVID-19 has brought a devastating public health crisis to our state. Hundreds of thousands of workers are risking their lives to continue to provide essential goods and services we depend on. Hundreds of thousands more are dealing with closures, furloughs, layoffs and other circumstances leading to unemployment. All of Minnesota’s working families — regardless of what they look like, where they live or where they come from — are facing unprecedented economic uncertainty.

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Southern Minnesota has seen some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks and greatest economic hits in the state. Seventy percent of the residents and 22 employees at Sauer Health Care in Winona were diagnosed with COVID-19 last month. Seneca Foods in Rochester temporarily shut down because of a high rate of cases among employees. COVID-19 rapidly spread throughout JBS pork plant in Worthington, leading to more than 1,000 positive cases in Nobles County and a temporary shutdown of the plant.

The economic uncertainty and public health crisis we are dealing with will be exacerbated if businesses and government look to reopen before we can ensure workers returning to work are safe. Worker safety must come first, and workers must have a say in the conditions of their workplace reopening. The AFL-CIO has proposed eight conditions for reopening the economy in Minnesota and across the country:

Pommella Wegmann

1. Workers must have a say in these decisions at every level: workplace, industry, city, state and federal.

2. Decisions must be based on worker safety and sound science.

3. Strong, clear and enforceable workplace health and safety standards must be in place.

4. Workers must have stronger protections against retaliation.

5. There must be a massive increase in adequate levels and types of personal protective equipment for workers currently on the job — and then for those returning to the job.

6. There must be a massive increase of rapid and reliable coronavirus testing.

7. There must be a comprehensive system of recording, reporting and tracking worker infections.

8. Employers, in coordination with local and state public health departments, must trace the contacts of infected workers and remove exposed workers from work with pay and without retaliation.

Businesses and the economy cannot rebound unless workers are protected. Minnesotans want to get back to work, but we have to do this the right way. Any plan to immediately “flip the switch” to reopen or any other plan that does not center worker safety is irresponsible and dangerous.

Minnesota’s strength comes from us being there for one another. This crisis has proved the best way to overcome adversity is to join together to protect our neighbors, our co-workers and our communities. It’s by working together and listening to the voices of working families that we will get through this and emerge stronger than before.

Bill McCarthy is the Mnnesota AFL-CIO president. The Minnesota AFL-CIO is the state labor federation made up of more than 1,000 affiliate unions, representing more than 300,000 working people throughout Minnesota.

Pommella Wegmann is the president of the Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council, which represents over 40,000 union members throughout southeast Minnesota.