Black workers are twice as likely as white workers to face retaliation about workplace safety
PHILADELPHIA—Today, City Council unanimously passed the Essential Workers Protection Act, introduced by City Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large). The legislation (Bill No. 200328) promotes public health by protecting workers from retaliation for speaking out about working conditions that violate mandatory state or City public health orders. It is supported by over two dozen labor, advocacy and nonprofit organizations representing tens of thousands of Philadelphians.
“This session has capped a historic expansion of protections for workers and residents of our City in response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Councilmember Gym. “Today City Council once again made clear that this City has the back of those workers who are simply asking that their employers follow the law and provide safe, healthy, and dignified workplaces. When Black workers are twice as likely to face retaliation, this is a matter of racial justice as well as the public good. We are saying loud and clear that there will be no retaliation or backlash for workers who are seeking to protect the public health by protecting themselves, their families, and their customers.”
As the city prepares to enter the “green” phase of reopening, when most workplaces return to business, there is growing concern that workers and customers will be further put at risk of contracting COVID-19. If a business is violating these orders, its workers will often be the first to know. To keep our whole community safe from a resurgence, workers must be able to report unsafe conditions that risk the public health without fearing retaliation that could deprive them of the income they need to feed their families.
The bill would prohibit retaliation, such as termination and reduced pay or hours, against workers who request compliance with public health orders or report violations in their workplace, and prohibit retaliation against workers who decline to work in illegally dangerous and unhealthy conditions as defined by the state and local health departments when they are provided with no safe alternatives.
A June 12 hearing on the bill featured testimony from impacted workers, labor leaders and experts. Workers shared their stories of facing retaliation for standing up for the safety of staff and customers, including a home health aide, a hotel worker, and a worker at MOM’s Organic Market. The National Employment Law Project testified about its findings that Black workers are more than twice as likely to face retaliation than white workers for reporting safety concerns about working conditions that could spread COVID-19.
The law will be enforced by the City’s new Department of Labor, which was approved as a permanent agency by ballot referendum on June 2 after legislation also sponsored by Councilmember Gym.
The bill is cosponsored by Councilmembers Mark Squilla (1st District), Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), Curtis Jones, Jr. (4th District), Bobby Henon (6th District), Maria Quiñones Sánchez (7th District), Kendra Brooks (At-Large), Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large), and Isaiah Thomas (At-Large).
“Our essential workers are in desperate need of protections,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “A large portion of our frontline workers are low-wage women of color who are especially vulnerable to retaliation. Councilmember’s Gym bill is paramount to protecting the health and safety of our workers as Philadelphia slowly begins to reopen, and I commend her for her work on this bill.”
“Protecting workers from COVID-19 isn’t just a public health issue – it’s an equity issue, too,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. “Black Philadelphians are significantly more likely to come down with the virus, and they are also more likely to face retaliation for raising safety concerns in the workplace. The Essential Worker Protection Bill will allow workers to advocate for their own well-being without fear of losing their jobs.”
“Philadelphia workers deserve to know that their employers are taking all the necessary precautions to keep them healthy, and they deserve the ability to report potential violations of public health orders issued by the City without fear of retaliation,” said Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer. “This bill would be a critical protection for the whole city as workers begin to go back to work to continue to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”
“Hospitality workers can’t work from home, and our members may soon be faced with the prospect of returning to work before there is any treatment or vaccine for COVID-19,” said Rosslyn Wuchinich, President of UNITE HERE Local 274. “Workers need strong protections so they don’t fear retaliation for reporting conditions which endanger the health of our communities.”
“Unsafe working conditions—and the legitimate fear of retaliation that workers face for blowing the whistle on them—endanger not only the workers themselves but their families and communities,” said Irene Tung, Senior Researcher at the National Employment Law Project. “Our research suggests that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments.”
At the hearing, workers told their stories of interacting with customers who claimed to have the virus but would not wear masks, of working under managers who protected themselves but not their employees, and losing work for speaking out about these conditions.
“I know what it means to be a Black worker,” said Corean Halloway, a hotel worker and member of UNITE HERE. “As a teenager in South Carolina, I fought to desegregate my high school. We desegregated our local movie theater. Today, we need to continue fighting. These protections are a part of that fight.”
Niko Kwiatkowski, a worker at MOM’s Organic Market, joined fellow workers in asking management to implement safety protocols for COVID-19.
“We were met with resistance, hostility, and disregard by our managers and by the company’s executive leadership” said Niko Kwiatowski, a worker at MOM’s Organic Market and member of One Pennsylvania. “As our voices grew louder one of my coworkers was fired, and many more were reprimanded. I saw directly how these disciplinary actions had a chilling effect on our workforce.”.
“It was only after the actions of whistleblowers like myself and my coworkers, with robust support, that my employer felt obligated to comply. And while my workplace has become considerably safer after all this effort, I can only imagine the countless other workplaces across our city whose workers remain silent out of fear.”
“I’m not getting the personal protective equipment I need, even though I have asthma and am working closely with patients,” said Monique Atkinson, a home health aide and member of One Pennsylvania. “I’ve lost cases for bringing up these concerns. As essential workers we deserve protection from retaliation when we bring up safety issues.”
“We need to learn from the outbreaks we’ve already seen occur in workplaces across the country,” said Patrick J. Eiding, President of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO. “I commend City Council for taking action to protect the men and women that are working every day to keep this city running. If workers don’t feel safe reporting a violation, then the public might not find out until it’s too late.”
“Workers provide the profits, but oftentimes employees are working in a climate of fear,” said Richard Hooker, President of Teamsters Local 623. “Profits cannot come at the expense of our health. This bill protects the most essential resource America has: the worker.”
“As we seek to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the Commonwealth continues its incremental reopening, we need to be mindful that employees are still vulnerable to a deadly and highly contagious virus,” said Maureen May, President of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals. “Employees must be safe, feel protected, and believe that their employers are following every known measure to prevent the spread of the virus and to avoid a dangerous resurgence in cases.”