Union Federation Warns Against Hasty Reopening Of Economy: ‘Many More Deaths’

The AFL-CIO union federation warned Tuesday that workplaces were still far too dangerous to consider reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, even as some governors are starting to lift restrictions in order to get businesses up and running again.

Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, said there was still insufficient personal protective equipment and not enough testing to make worksites safe yet. He called for stronger legal protections for those who will have to refuse dangerous work as their employers begin to call them back.

“We’ve already lost too many of our members. Too many of our members have been infected and had their families traumatized,” Trumka, whose coalition includes 55 unions representing 12 million workers, said on a call with reporters. 

“The greatest mistake we can make is reopening the economy too soon,” he went on. “A rush to reopen without protections for workers will lead to an explosion of the disease, many more deaths and another shutdown.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) introduced a plan Monday to reopen gyms, barber shops, nail salons and bowling alleys on April 24. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said the “vast majority” of businesses could open their doors when the state’s stay-at-home order expires at the end of the month. And South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said most of the state’s retail stores could soon reopen.

President Trump has been itching to get the economy running full throttle again despite a lack of testing and warnings from public health experts that starting up too soon will lead to new outbreaks. He has been encouraging conservative protesters who’ve been demanding their Democratic governors drop restrictions on nonessential businesses.

Some unions within the AFL-CIO federation have been battered by the epidemic, with a majority of their members laid off or furloughed as businesses have closed temporarily. More than nine in 10 members of the hospitality union Unite Here have been laid off, according to the union.

Despite the economic pain, Trumka said it would be foolish to reopen the economy only to lead to further outbreaks and lockdowns. He said in addition to making testing more widely available, employers need to conduct contract-tracing to see who among the workforce was exposed to colleagues with the virus. 

“There’s no question everybody wants to go back to work,” he said. “But when we go back, we want to go back safely. The worst thing would be to send them back, then send them home again 10 days later with the coronavirus raging.” 

Indeed, another union within the federation, the United Food and Commercial Workers, estimates that at least 30 of its members have died during the pandemic. UFCW members tend to work in grocery stores and meatpacking plants and have been deemed “essential” during the crisis due to their role in the food supply chain. 

Their workplaces, such as the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, have been the sites of some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country. There have been more than 720 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among employees at the facility.

“I think by asking the economy to be reopened before we have safe workplaces, people are demanding that workers’ lives be put at risk,” Trumka said.

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