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Labor leaders call for worker aid as coronavirus shuts down economy

They say effects are spreading rapidly, with many people in immediate need of help.

Labor leaders in the Chicago area and nationally can be a tough-talking group, but on Thursday they spoke in a pleading tone, some with a quaver in their voices.

They urged private employers to pay workers during furloughs and called for federal legislation to ensure the continued flow of money and benefits to people — and not corporations — as the nation’s economic paralysis spreads because of the pandemic.

“Workers are making sacrifices right now,” said Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “We cannot let those sacrifices be in vain.”

He called on private employers to help their staffs. “This is a time when folks have to step up,” Reiter said.

The Chicago Federation of Labor, an association of nearly 300 labor groups, has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

The union leaders, on a conference call with reporters, stressed the urgency of the crisis and said more workers and economic sectors are feeling the impact daily. They said state or federal legislation is needed to guarantee paid sick leave to more workers, extend that protection to independent contractors, and increase unemployment benefits. A federal law about minimum sick leave enacted Wednesday does not extend that protection to workers in companies with 500 or more employees and those in some small businesses with fewer than 50 workers.

Some struggled for words to describe the hardship many workers face. “I cannot overstate how dramatic this crisis has been. None of them know what they or their families will do next,” said Karen Kent, president of the hotel workers union Unite Here Local 1. She said that because of reduced demand for rooms and hotel shutdowns, only 4,000 of its 16,000 members are working.

Kent said the union is examining all resources that could help a workforce mostly composed of immigrants, women and people of color.

But in the meantime, Chicago hotels announcing or planning closures. Shopping malls are shutting down and some banks are curtailing hours at branches. While the pandemic’s impacts were felt early in anything related to travel and tourism, Reiter said he’s heard of troubling cutbacks in industrial production and other sectors.

The union leaders said they had no tally yet on the number of workers idled by the virus-related halt in the economy. But in a sign of things to come, the Illinois Department of Employment Security said that from Monday through Wednesday, it received more than 64,000 claims for jobless benefits, about 10 times what it got for the same three days in the comparable week last year.

Sara Nelson, president of the International Association of Flight Attendants, said a broader bailout must cover worker paychecks and not replace profits for beleaguered industries. She said 80% to 90% of aviation workers are on layoff, and some airlines may be unable to make a payroll in a few weeks because demand has dried up.

“We need a relief plan that keeps the paychecks going,” she said. Nelson said her union and others are working with Congress on the issue. “We are making inroads with both Democrats and Republicans,” she said.

Marti Smith, Midwest director for National Nurses United, also highlighted ongoing threats to health-care workers whose services are in greater demand. She slammed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Hospital Association for endorsing looser standards on safety gear needed for healthcare workers.

The CDC has recommended that as a last resort, healthcare workers can wear scarves or bandannas in lieu of masks, advice Smith called “horrifying.”

“If we are not protected, we will become infected, and that means everybody in the hospital or other health care facilities are also highly likely to become infected – patients, their family members, and all other health care staff,” she said.

Separately, workers’ rights organizations called for similar legislation that would directly benefit gig workers, such as ride-share drivers, who do not qualify for unemployment insurance and Medicaid.

Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs With Justice, said gig workers now hold about one of every three jobs in the economy. “These workers are categorically excluded from paid sick leave laws, minimum wage protections, workers’ compensation coverage and unemployment insurance as well as prohibited from forming a union to advocate for their rights at work. The effort of companies to dodge any and all financial liabilities for their employees is leading far too many workers to be classified as independent contractors,” she said.