Opinion: State’s Essential Workers Deserve More Protections on the Job

Essential Workers
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As a technician in the emergency department of a busy hospital in Prince George’s County, I thought I had seen it all over the years.

But things changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Our emergency department has seen a dramatic increase in patient loads, including a surge in cases of people testing positive for the coronavirus.

As the first wave hit last spring, we did not have the protective gear we needed. Masks were hard to come by, and we would have to use the same one day after day – and these were disposable masks that are supposed to be used only once.

The risk of infection was always with us. Sometimes the risk soared – with patients who were infected with the virus and were experiencing behavioral health episodes. It’s your job so you do it, but you can’t help thinking about the risks of infection.

The stress of dealing with the much higher patient load and so many COVID cases has been enormous. It’s been mentally and physically tragic to the staff as we see firsthand the impact the virus is having on the older population and so many others.

More staffers are missing time from work due to the stress. Some don’t feel safe and others have had to quarantine. There are often fewer of us working at a time when there are more patients to care for. And I have not received any kind of hazard pay to compensate for the added workload and risk.

The experience I and so many other essential workers have had the past 10 months convinced me to get involved in trying to pass the Maryland Essential Workers Protection Act in the General Assembly. This bill would go a long way toward making sure workers are treated fairly by requiring employers to provide a safe working environment and adequate protective equipment.

It would also mandate $3-per-hour hazard pay moving forward for frontline workers required to work during an emergency and would give workers paid leave to quarantine or take bereavement leave.

I am an ex-Marine and saw combat duty in the Middle East, so I pride myself on handling the extra stress I have experienced these past 10 months. But many of my co-workers are struggling. They worry about getting the virus or taking it home to their kids.

I heard from one health care worker in Baltimore who strips out of her clothes after a long shift before entering her home to help keep her three sons safe.

A co-worker of mine in Prince George’s County talks about how she and her team would pray to stay safe before each shift. “It’s all we have,” she said. She was exposed to someone with the virus and had to quarantine for two weeks but got paid for only part of that time – meaning her family budget took a hit because she was required to stay home to keep staff and patients safe.

And there is the grocery store worker in Largo, a grandmother, who has been put in the stressful position of enforcing the store’s rules about mask-wearing. “Our jobs have gotten harder,” she told legislators in her testimony on the essential workers bill. “In addition to being rule enforcers, we have to clean more, we are often short-staffed when people are out of work because they have tested positive or are quarantined.” Finally, she pointed out that 565 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union have gotten COVID and three have died.

Maryland is asking a lot of its frontline workers, so it’s time to make sure that all essential workers have safe jobs. And we should pay people for dealing with the added stress and risks to serve the community during this emergency.

I join with so many other essential workers across Maryland – people who must go to work each day in health facilities, grocery stores, state prisons, warehouses and so many job sites – to strongly urge the General Assembly to stand with us and support the Essential Workers Protection Act.

— ANTHONY POWELL

The writer lives in La Plata and works as an emergency medical technician at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly. He is a member of 1199 Service Employees International Union.