On Workers Memorial Day last year, the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health and other workplace-safety advocates gathered in the rain to mourn 40 New Yorkers who died on the job.
This year, the number of workers who were honored on Workers Memorial Day grew tenfold: 514 employees who died during the previous 12 months were mourned, many of them front-line workers who passed from COVID-19.
Held It on Facebook
For more than three decades, labor leaders and community groups have commemorated employees who were killed or injured in the workplace and called for improved safety conditions on April 28. While normally the memorial takes place at a location where an employee who recently died on the job worked, this year’s event was held on the NYC CLC’s Facebook page because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“While our commemorations will look different this year, taking place largely through social media and other online platforms, they are more important than ever,” said Janella Hinds, secretary-treasurer of the NYC CLC and vice president for academic high schools of the United Federation of Teachers.
As employees across the state work from home in order to limit the spread of the virus, hospital staff, first-responders, transit employees and grocery workers have been on the front lines of the response across the state. They were more likely to contract coronavirus, and New York has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, with more than 18,000 people who have died from the illness.
“We have always known that these were essential workers. And now the rest of the world, they’ve seen it too,” said Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez.
481 Died of Virus
Of the 514 names that were streamed on Facebook Live, 33 died at their job sites, while the rest died from COVID-19. The CLC noted that the coronavirus-related deaths were collected from media reports or were submitted by friends and family members.
“The truth is, we don’t know the exact number," said Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of NYCOSH.
Ms. Hinds believed that reading the names of those who died was important because “they were so much more than statistics in a report or passing references in the news; they were people who had lives, friends and families.”
The theme of this year’s event was “Protect Our Rights, Speak Up for Safe Jobs.” In a letter sent that same day to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on the Labor Department and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to strengthen workplace-safety measures against coronavirus for front-line workers, and to commit to protect from retaliation employees who push for personal protective equipment or blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions.
Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, called for more coronavirus testing, particularly as states such as Georgia began to open non-essential businesses again. President Trump has encouraged some states to re-open, including Michigan and Virginia. Ms. Shuler said the Trump Administration’s response to the virus has put workers in harm’s way, calling it “totally negligent.”
“We can’t return people to work until strong safety protections are in place,” she said.
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