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CARES Act has holes for workers

Law meant to boost economy leaves some vulnerable to financial, health risks

The newly signed CARES Act was designed to help stimulate the economy while offering much-needed relief to both businesses and workers. On the whole, the package is looked at favorably, but some experts are saying CARES leaves certain workers vulnerable.

“Low-income workers who are most impacted—they deal in things like retail, hospitality, childcare and the gig economy—these are jobs that they cannot perform remotely so it’s not like you can get on a Zoom conference and do your work. You have to be physically there,” said Mark Gaston Pearce, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama administration and current executive director of Georgetown Law’s Workers’ Rights Institute. “The majority (of employers in that arena) do not offer paid sick leave or health insurance. Research has shown that low income is associated with a higher rate of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and these are factors that increase your vulnerability to COVID-19.”

That problem is not addressed within the CARES Act, Pearce said.

“Most of the 40.6 million people living in poverty in the United States have no savings to weather a lack of income if they get laid off, so they’re compelled to risk their lives in order to keep food on the table,” he added. “The irony of it is that those of us who are able to shelter and keep our social distance by calling on the phone and ordering through Grubhub or Instacart whatever we want to eat, that food is being prepared by and delivered by people who are not getting the same protection of the stimulus (package).”

Vulnerable populations that may not benefit fully from the federal stimulus package include immigrants, individuals with disabilities, restaurant workers, domestic workers, farmworkers and more, Pearce said.

The Worker Justice Center of New York is an organization that serves low-wage workers, particularly farmworkers, said Managing Director Andrea Callan.

“What we’re seeing is that essential workers are still out there every day, and in some cases putting their lives on the line if they’ve got underlying health conditions or any other concerns, or people back at home who may be more susceptible to COVID-19,” said Callan, who works from the organization’s Rochester office. “A big proportion of essential workers happen to be low-wage workers, and a big part of the workforce that makes up the low-wage workforce are immigrant workers of all degrees of immigration status, and even coming from families with mixed immigration status where some could have status and others may not. We’re seeing there have really been some clearly intentional ways the relief package has been carved out to leave immigrant workers out in the cold.”

Another area where the CARES Act falls short, Pearce said, is that the bill allows employers to waive paid sick leave for health care workers, which he calls heroes in the fight.

“As it stands, health care workers are exempt from being able to take paid sick leave if they get exposed or they have to take time off to care for children that do not have alternative childcare arrangements,” Pearce said. “That’s like slapping our heroes in the face.”

The bill also fails to mandate that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration establish a safety standard for the pandemic and ignores the fact that the federal government is “preventing employees from voting to be represented by a union,” Pearce said. The NLRB has postponed elections during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The House bill went to specific lengths to deal with the fact that OSHA protections needed to be put into place. The House bill required OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard within seven days,” Pearce explained of the need to protect health care workers and first responders. “All of that was carefully mapped out because under the existing OSHA regulations there are no standards.”

In addition to asking for a temporary standard, the House bill would require OSHA to issue a comprehensive permanent infectious disease standard within two years to protect employees from infectious pathogens moving forward.

“That was all dropped in the Senate bill,” Pearce noted. “So what happens is, you have each hospital creating their own standard. There are no regulations that deal uniformly with the safety of health care workers.”

But it is not just health care workers who need protections. This week roughly 100 Amazon workers in New York City walked off the job because they say they have been and are repeatedly exposed and their employer has not done enough to protect them. Workers said they were not always physically distanced from each other, particularly because they knew some employees had the virus.

Also this week, thousands of Instacart employees executed a nationwide strike, saying they faced innumerable health risks in their jobs.

One local company is helping employers mitigate the risk of exposure for their staffs and customers. Expert Environmental & Construction Group offers two different services including disinfection, which includes cleaning of high touch-point areas such as doorknobs, thermostats, light switches, keyboards, mice and more.

“And we’re also doing preventative measures for banks and offices, schools and things like that where they have not had a case yet but they are asking to be proactive and do a regular interval of disinfection,” said company President Steven Nardozzi.

The company also has completed the service in a few buildings where there were active cases of COVID-19 so that they can disinfect and keep their doors open, he said.

The second COVID-19-related service Expert Environmental offers is adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabbing.

“The second piece is what I think is going to be the more popular, more reasonable and more effective long-term solution,” Nardozzi said. “We take ATP swabs and there’s a digital meter that reads the cleanliness of a surface. It’s been used in sanitation and environmental settings for health care for the last 30 years.”

It is a process that any business—including Amazon—can use to track whether its in-house cleaning crew is leaving surfaces free of germs.

“It’s a good validity for either a) they’re doing the proper job or b) they need to increase the training interval and the cleaning interval,” Nardozzi said. “Meaning, are they doing it correctly, are they putting the surfaces to a virus-free setting before people come back into the building?”

Expert Environmental already has worked with a number of local assisted living facilities, daycares, manufacturers and more to ensure that they are protecting their workers from coming in contact with the COVID-19 virus.

And while these measures help, some experts say more needs to be done at a higher level. The CARES Act just doesn’t address all of the issues or people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we’re seeing is that the Senate and the House to some extent are doing a victory lap. They talk about how this $2 trillion is the largest stimulus package ever known in the history of the United States—and it may well be—but there are so many people that are still out there not being cared for, people who are necessary links in the functioning of this society,” Pearce said.

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