DURING THE COVID-19 pandemic, we often hear the phrase “We’re all in this together.” But actually there are deep inequalities in who faces the most risk — and who is consulted in charting our way to a comprehensive recovery.
Nationwide, we see essential workers, communities of color, and people living in nursing homes face disproportionate danger as the death toll mounts. At the same time, billionaire corporations are taking advantage of the crisis to push their standard de-regulation, anti-worker and anti-immigrant platforms and are cashing in on stimulus funds. Like the rest of our country, COVID-19 inequalities are widespread in Massachusetts, with communities of color and low-income people hit the hardest, as some of our billionaires’ profit.
Even though a reopening plan should focus on closing these inequalities, Baker’s plan only deepens our divides. The governor claims he is following public health metrics and offering the Commonwealth a data-driven plan. But his plan fails to adopt the objective public health measures that would protect people returning to work. Occupational health experts have pointed out that, among other failings, Baker’s plan:
- Fails to address several, key elements of workplace safety;
- Fails to provide for adequate inspection or enforcement, and in some cases actually weakens existing enforcement capabilities;
- Depends largely on workers to report violations, but does not include protections against retaliation;
- Asks workers to stay home if they are sick, but does not provide for sick leave or workers’ compensation coverage; and
- Fails to implement data collection on the occupations, industries and workplaces of COVID-19 cases to identify and better protect workers who are more impacted, and to identify workplace outbreaks.
To understand why Baker’s plan has so many gaps, we should take a closer look at his Reopening Advisory Board. The board is packed with corporate executives, who make up 9 of the 17 members, not including the president of Baystate Health. A few of the corporations represented have concerning track records, including support for school privatization, a federal False Claims Act settlement, and implication in wage theft allegations.
Despite the public health crisis, and its debilitating impact on workers, only one public health official and one physician are on the board and neither have expertise in occupational health and safety.
The others include one higher education president, three municipal officials, and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. The board is chaired by Lt. Governor Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy.
Baker emphasized on May 18 that the Reopening Advisory Board had consulted widely with labor unions, non-profits, and community coalitions, among others. It is true that many groups, including MassCOSH and American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, developed recommendations they have shared with the board or the public. MassCOSH recommended a range of baseline occupational health protections that the board ignored, resulting in the failures listed above.
The AFT-Mass recommended the state adopt evidence-based public health measures aligned with strategies for meeting the instructional needs and general well-being of students, and provided a detailed set of recommendations, from smaller class sizes to staggered lunchtimes, that would help protect students and staff alike. We also told the board that we need to involve workers, parents, and communities in all planning, and ensure that our schools and other public institutions have the resources they need to move forward. None of these recommendations are reflected in the final plan.
However, the approach favored by some in the corporate sector is evident in the plan.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce was pushing for minimal regulation of business in the reopening plan, as well as protection from liability if their workers or customers get sick. The Chambers’ interests were presumably represented on the board by three executives whose corporations are members of the advocacy group, including two whose corporations (Fidelity and Rapid7) are represented on the Greater Boston Chamber’s executive committee .
In line with the Greater Boston Chamber’s agenda, Baker’s plan “relies heavily on guidance rather than regulation, which businesses prefer.” Celebrated by the Chamber, this approach will likely prove deadly for workers as there is little material incentive for corner-cutting employers to follow even the inadequate guidelines released.
Baker must take a second look at his re-opening plan to truly incorporate the voices of the broad range of workers, community groups, and health experts calling for a safe and just recovery. It is not too late to fix the deadly problems in the reopening plan.
Beth Kontos is the president of American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts and Jodi Sugarman is the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.