New York labor leaders paint a picture

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HUDSON VALLEY, NY — Labor leaders, elected officials and others gathered via Zoom on May 1 to discuss some issues facing front-line workers during the COVID-19 crisis. The event was organized by the Hudson Valley Labor Federation.

First to speak was Greg Pasquale a representative of New York Grocery Workers Local 1500. “When the mask mandate came down this turned into a very serious situation in our grocery stores,” he said. “We’ve had customer fights in the stores, in the parking lots, people trying to address other people wearing masks. We had customers go after our members in the stores, this has become our number one concern.”  

“We’ve stressed to the companies we have to get security in the stores, some companies are addressing it. They are monitoring how many people come into the building, they monitor if you are wearing a mask; they will not let you in the building if you’re not wearing a mask.

“Regarding putting Plexiglas up at the registers, some companies were quick to react, some companies were a little slow to react, we pushed them as hard as we could,” Pasquale said.

“The stress issue in the stores has become serious with seven weeks of this. Just going to work every day is stressful enough but now with the customer issues on top of that it’s putting people over the top.  

“The main thing the union is concerned with is are the companies following all the guidelines in the stores, and so far it’s been very good,” Pasquale said.

Another person who spoke was Karen Barrett a representative of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents many front-line healthcare workers. “Some of our members have to do procedures like intubation on their coworkers and it is heart breaking. Some have recovered, and we give thanks for that. Some are still fighting the battle,” she said. “It’s really a challenge when we are fighting the crisis and they don’t see an end to it. 

“We still have issues when our members have tested positive, and they have been quarantined and they come back to work, and they are coming up positive again. And management says, ‘I can’t pay for them being out because I don’t know how long there going to be out, and we want them to utilize the time that they have in the bank to be paid.’ And the workers are saying, ‘No we can’t touch our time, because we don’t know how long this crisis is going to last.’

“Another challenge is mental health issues. Our workers tell us they’re having nightmares, they can’t sleep. They’re seeing so many people pass away in front of them that it’s taking a toll on them mentally, emotionally and physically.

“So, they want to help people, they chose this profession. But then who is there to help them go through this crisis?”

She said the fight Local 1199 is pushing now is to get crisis pay for all frontline workers. She said management is willing to give it to some employees, but wants to not give it to others such as house cleaners.

State Sen. Jen Metzger also spoke briefly. “One aspect that kept coming across was the stress and the mental health toll that this is taking on our workforce and the lack of adequate support for our workers, and it’s not just right now, it’s beyond this crisis. We have this natural instinct to kind of tamp it down while we’re in crisis mode, and our workers on the frontline are going to be feeling the impacts beyond this.

“I am really worried about the state budget situation. We haven’t gotten the governor’s exact proposal yet, but we know that his approach is to cut. Where I am, and where a number of my colleagues are is, we have an incredibly inequitable tax system in New York State. We have incredible inequality in New York State, we lead in this country in inequality. That is not something we want to be the lead in. We should be considering taxing the top one percent, those people who can afford it, to help us address these shortfalls in our budget. It should not be cuts across the board and we’re pushing for that.”

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