Essential workers call on lawmakers to raise wages, increase protections in pandemic

As the North Carolina House and Senate finalized pandemic relief bills in Raleigh Wednesday, essential workers from around the state held a “digital lobby day” to call on state and federal lawmakers to address their strongest concerns in new legislation.

More than 100 workers participated in the event, which was streamed live on Facebook and aimed at elected officials.

“We need to make sure they hear directly from essential workers,” said Keith Bullard, an organizer with the Fight for $15 North Carolina movement who hosted the event. ” They must put workers’ needs at the center of any relief and COVID plan.”

“We want expanded unemployment benefits and guaranteed paid sick days for some workers,” Bullard said. “But that’s not enough. These relief bills have not done nearly enough to meet the demands of workers on the front lines. Essential workers know what policies we need from the government to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”

Workers deemed “essential” in the pandemic often work long hours for low wages in grocery store and fast food jobs that Bullard said are on the front-lines of the pandemic and involve great health risks. They are also disproportionately people of color, he said.

The group laid out demands for lawmakers:

  • Ensure every worker has access to paid sick leave no matter where they work.
  • Expand healthcare coverage for the uninsured.
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for all essential workers.
  • Ensure everyone has access to COVID-19 relief benefits, regardless of race, immigration status or employment status.
  • Invest in public services, not big corporations.

The event also highlighted the voices of essential workers, some of whom participated via video teleconference from breaks on their job.

Jamilla Allen, who works at Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in Durham, used her lunch break to address the group.

Jamilla Allen, a fast food worker from Durham, participated in Wednesday’s digital lobbying day during her lunch break.

“At my job right now we’re only doing the drive-through,” Allen said. “I wear gloves but I’m still concerned about getting the virus because I keep touching money all the time. I have to take the bus to and from work every day. If I could work from home and avoid taking the bus I would do it. But I have to take this risk to keep my job. If I got the virus I would be out of work for weeks without pay. My job has never had paid sick days or health benefits. But we’ve always needed it, even before this virus.”

Sheree Allen, who works in child care in Durham, underlined the racial disparities in the impact of and response to the coronavirus.

“People of all races and backgrounds are hurting right now, and we are fighting for all of us,” Allen said.”But the data is showing that communities of color are getting hit especially hard by this virus. We are demanding that the government track the impact of COVID-19 by race and come up with interventions to make sure resources are directed to highly impacted, under-served communities.”

The group invited Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to participate in the event but didn’t receive a reply.

N.C. Rep Vernetta Alston (D-Durham) and Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson did attend.

“The State of North Carolina cannot withstand this crisis and move forward without you,” she group. “Your rights, your safety and your livelihoods deserve strong action.”

The current pandemic simply highlighted existing inequalities, Johnson said.

“Our low minimum wages, lack of adequate unemployment benefits, lack of paid sick leave — all of these existed before COVID-19,” Johnson said. “But we cannot allow them continue to exist after COVD-19. All our governments need to come together and make sure that the relief that we’re providing is what’s going to help our families, our workers and our communities.”

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Essential workers call on lawmakers to raise wages, increase protections in pandemic