AFSCME: It’s Time to Recognize the Sacrifices of Essential Workers During Pandemic

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By Patrick Moran

The writer is AFSCME Maryland Council 3 president.

Labor Day is upon us, and the day off for (many, but not all) workers will include family, friends, heat and humidity, and the uninvited guest — COVID-19. This year the delta variant will be making its first appearance and given its aggressive spreading capabilities will leave victims behind in its wake.

Now, well over a year of living with the coronavirus pandemic, it is instructive to look at how Maryland’s state workforce — those who provide needed supports and services to Marylanders — have fared over the past year.

From the beginning of the pandemic, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and its labor and community partners have demanded health and safety plans, established protocols, hazard pay and PPE for all, especially those serving in congregate care facilities like hospitals and prisons.

The Hogan administration responded sluggishly and allowed many state agencies and college campuses — and individual facilities within those agencies and campuses — to determine what, if any, plans and protocols be put in place. The General Assembly, with the leadership of Sen. Brian Feldman and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, authored legislation that would have established state performance measures, assessments and goals for addressing the pandemic, as well as identifying unmet needs, especially within minority and underserved communities.

The governor’s response was a veto including a defensive inventorying of the actions his administration has taken. Instead of being planful and forward looking, he chose reflection and deflection. Now we hear that there are supervisors telling employees who have been vaccinated to come into work, even if they have tested positive for COVID — in direct conflict with CDC guidelines.

The General Assembly did pass legislation which sounds perfect — the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act. And while there are good policy pieces within the act, a critical component was left out — ensuring essential workers are paid in the event they can’t work because of the pandemic. It is instead left up to the federal and/or state government to provide funding for these essential workers’ pay.

The term “essential” should have an asterisk next to it — *pay optional.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3.

One of the biggest failures of the General Assembly’s session was not passing legislation which would have provided workers’ compensation benefits to those who contract COVID on the job.  Given how many essential workers were required to continue work, leaving out this necessary policy component was a slap in the face to those who did their jobs every day.

AFSCME continues to fight for our members’ rights every day, but all too often we find ourselves fighting to even sit down and negotiate with management.

The Hogan administration and the University System of Maryland have demonstrated the ability to ignore the most basic demands of wages and health and safety issues. Maryland state employees do not have the right to strike, yet there also is no binding arbitration, leaving management the ability to “run out the clock” with no resolution to negotiations.

This has especially hurt wages — when comparing the rate of inflation to the cost-of-living adjustments state employees have received since 2003, state workers have fallen behind the rate of inflation by over 25%. And there are hundreds of employees within Maryland’s higher education system who make less than $15 per hour.

Working full time should ensure living wages are paid — but that is not the case for far too many Maryland employees. And with no finality and resolution to wage negotiations, the scales of collective bargaining are weighted heavily against workers.

AFSCME is putting out a petition this Labor Day asking legislators, community leaders and average taxpayers to pledge to support living wages, and to fix and expand collective bargaining rights for workers.

After the “thank yous” and appreciations so many essential workers have received, the true test is to convert platitudes to dignity, respect and pay for those same workers. Please click on the above link and support Maryland’s workers by pledging your support. Thank you.