LOUISVILLE, Ky. — U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth (D-Louisville), the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, Kentucky’s AFL-CIO, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, and Kentuckians working or who have lost jobs due to the pandemic joined in for a virtual town hall. The topic was about the need for government and companies to step-up to support and protect workers during this abnormal time.
“Usually our union workers smell like hot dogs right now as they serve them at the zoo to show great appreciation for labor,” said President Bob Blair of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 in Louisville.
According to Caitlin Blair, communications and political director for Local 227, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents 23,000 meatpacking or grocery store workers in Kentucky alone.
“Like Jason Wilson who is concerned about not being able to socially distance at work. He works at a Tyson plant on the debone in line, 18 inches apart from the coworker next to him on a line with hundreds of workers, going at 145 birds per minute.”￼
Stories like Wilson’s were shared throughout the one-hour town hall because the organizations hosting the event said no workers have been invited to testify before the Kentucky General Assembly in COVID-19 legislative hearings. This was their chance to have their voices heard.
“Mason Sims, a pharmacy tech in the Lexington-area who hasn’t seen his family that lives in Hopkinsville since Christmas,” Blair recounted. “He’s afraid, and the health and safety of his family is too important to risk. He told me the other day, ‘Thank God for FaceTime, but it’s not the same when you can’t give your family a hug,” Blair added.
Blair wants to see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the U.S. Senate pass the HEROES Act that passed the U.S. House in May 2020. Blair asked that workers receive increased hazard pay, increased access to PPE and testing, and that deferral government passes enforceable standards to keep workers safe while on the job.
The HEROES Act bill includes:
- FY2020 emergency supplemental appropriations to federal agencies;
- payments and other assistance to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments;
- additional direct payments of up to $1,200 per individual;
- paid sick days, family and medical leave, unemployment compensation, nutrition and food assistance programs, housing assistance, and payments to farmers;
- a modified and expanded Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations;
- a fund to award grants for employers to provide pandemic premium pay for essential workers;
- several tax credits and deductions;
- funding and establishes requirements for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing;
- eliminates cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatments;
- extends and expands the moratorium on certain evictions and foreclosures; and
- employers to develop and implement infectious disease exposure control plans.
“If the Senate can’t pass the HEROES Act, our governor can authorize the Kentucky Labor Cabinet to enforce his healthy at work guidelines,” Blair said. She also asked for Kentuckians and companies to do their part in keeping workers on various frontlines, from the grocery store to teachers, safe.
“We as consumers and as customers can wear a mask when we shop and demand that corporations that are making record profits pay their workers the hazard pay that they deserve,” Blair said.
Yarmuth said he doesn’t know where the HEROES ACT will go, but congress reconvenes next week to pass a funding bill to keep the federal government open until the end of the year.
“Hopefully by that time, Republicans and Democrats will come together in recognition of the absolute responsibility of United States government to help people sustain their lives,” Yarmuth said.
The Louisville congressman added that this conversation can’t just be about the present but must also include the future since work and the economy have fundamentally shifted during the pandemic.
“There are jobs and categories of jobs that will never return, and then you look at technology and what that’s going to do, and we have to start thinking about the economic challenges, not just the immediate, but the ones we know are coming,” Yarmuth explained. “We need to make sure that we take the appropriate steps so that the vast majority of Americans are not jeopardized by them.￼”