The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the lack of protections and benefits for the people keeping business moving in Virginia, local union members told state legislators on a call Wednesday afternoon.
“What has been made transparent through this pandemic is that the working class, and of course disproportionately as we know people of color, are the ones really suffering from unemployment, from lack of healthcare, from working in unsafe conditions, from being unable to pay rent,” said Northern Virginia Labor Federation President Virginia Diamond. “And it is indeed a crisis, the lack of a safety net, the lack of workers’ rights in the state.”
Workers have already lost some of their colleagues to the virus.
Mike Schemm, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which includes Loudoun, Fairfax and other transit workers around the DC region, said his local union has lost five members to the virus already, and across the country the union has lost more than 80 members. Many others have been laid off as transit agencies scale back.
“I’m not speaking badly in any way, shape or form about my company or Loudoun County Transit,” Schemm, also a dispatch supervisor with Loudoun Transit, said after the conference call. “I’ve seen great things out of both of them. It was heartbreaking. I’ve been with Loudon County since forever, and it was heartbreaking to watch something I’ve seen grow from 16, 18 buses, up to a fleet of 100, go back to five. I never thought I’d see it.”
Transit drivers are particularly vulnerable, he said, because they work in enclosed spaces with recirculating air. Now, as Loudoun begins to slowly reopen bus routes, he said they are focused on keeping both drivers and passengers safe.
“Our biggest thing right now is reassuring the public that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe on our buses,” Schemm said. Cleaning crews and drivers are sanitizing buses and wearing masks and gloves. “As much as we want to keep our drivers safe, we also want to keep the public safe. I need to keep my drivers safe … because there’s a driver shortage.”
Raul Castro, a member of Carpenters’ Local 197, said construction workers have also been vulnerable.
“In our industry a large proportion of the workers are immigrants, and there are disproportionate number of immigrant workers who have become sick from the virus,” Castro said. He asked legislators to expand protections, including allowing those who can’t work in the pandemic due to concerns about their age, health, or need to take care of a family member to claim unemployment benefits.
Lisa Griebel, a Child Protective Services specialist with Loudoun County and member of Service Employees International Union Local 512, said the county has allowed workers to take paid time off, and that that has been a big part of why she has stayed with the county for 17 years. But not everyone is in her fortunate position.
“It’s absolutely crucial for the safety of our community that we have access to paid leave, because if any of us becomes infect by the coronavirus … we know that coming to work sick could endanger the people that we serve and spread the virus further throughout the community,” Griebel said. She added: “I have never had to make the difficult choice between caring for my own family and keeping my job, and I don’t think that anyone should ever have to make that choice.”
Legislators in attendance included state Sens. Barbara A. Favola (D-31), Jennifer B. Boyko (D-33) and Kathleen J. Murphy (D-34), along with Dels. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-86) and David A. Reid (D-32). Several pledged to push for increased worker benefits and protections in the General Assembly, as well as rolling back “right-to-work” legislation that limits unionization in the state, and which Samirah called “one of the biggest roadblocks to worker prosperity in the Virginia.”
Favola said she expects to bring up COVID-19-related legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes Aug. 18.
This article was updated July 29 at 7:36 p.m. to correct an error about attendance, and July 31 at 11:02 a.m. to correct a typographical error.