WASHINGTON, October 8, 2020— Labor unions representing healthcare workers, teachers, transit operators and millions of other frontline workers joined with environmental groups today to sue the federal government over its failure to provide adequate reusable respirators, N95 masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to these essential workers.
Today’s lawsuit comes as COVID-19 has engulfed the White House, with more than a dozen high-level aides, additional White House staff and frontline workers on Capitol Hill testing positive for the virus. And it follows the announcement Tuesday that negotiations on a coronavirus relief bill would be delayed until after November 3. The bill includes provisions for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety standards to protect essential workers against the deadly disease.
“The AFL-CIO is joining this lawsuit to force the Trump administration to do what it should have done months ago — protect American workers by dramatically increasing the supply of the PPE they need to work safely during this pandemic,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “The failure to do so is immoral and inexcusable, and we demand action now.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf should act immediately to ensure the manufacture and distribution of PPE. The agencies failed to respond to an August petition from the groups that demanded emergency action, violating federal law. The agencies have refused to properly manage PPE production and distribution, leaving states and industry to compete and frontline workers short of supplies.
“Nurses will do whatever it takes to care for patients who are fighting this virus,” said Karen Ballentyne, a registered nurse at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles and a member of SEIU Local 121RN. “But we need the tools it takes to do our jobs. It’s disgraceful that we still can’t count on an adequate, reliable supply of PPE.”
“It’s difficult for healthcare workers to get supplies on a daily basis because employers are conserving what they have, and having to ask or find PPE on our own is a horrible practice,” said Denise Abbott, an emergency room nurse in Buffalo, N.Y., and a member of Communications Workers of America Local 1168. “Staff still have to reuse masks for the entire day unless they’re dirty, damp or damaged. PPE must be at the ready and used properly if we’re ever going to see an end to this crisis. With the flu season fast approaching, healthcare workers are again facing great risk from this administration’s failure to act.”
Healthcare workers, teachers, transit operators and other essential workers are reusing PPE or buying their own as schools open and states and cities across the country relax COVID-related restrictions. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says Azar and Wolf should immediately use the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate PPE supply for frontline workers.
“We cannot allow this dangerous shortage of PPE to become the new normal,” said United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway. “Too many workers are still forced to use improper or ill-fitting PPE because they can’t get what they need or to reuse disposable protective equipment because of supply issues. Yet workers looking to this administration for help have been met by nothing but political posturing and empty promises.”
Today’s lawsuit comes as the United States reaches nearly 210,000 deaths and 7.5 million infections from the coronavirus and prepares for flu season. Plaintiffs include the nation’s largest labor unions — representing essential workers in healthcare, education, transportation and service sectors — including the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers and Amalgamated Transit Union. The groups collectively represent more than 15 million workers in frontline industries that have suffered thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses from COVID-19.
“The federal government is abandoning essential workers and treating them like they’re disposable,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “These are teachers and nurses and bus drivers who have made sure our country survives during this crisis. We stand in solidarity with them and will do everything possible to prevent this tragic, preventable loss of life. They’re being exploited, not unlike the abuse that corporations and this government inflict on the environment.”
The number of coronavirus infections has ballooned by 50% — or 2.5 million cases — since the groups filed their petition in August. Public health experts anticipate that COVID-19 cases will surge this fall and winter as people spend more time indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.
“Our union has filed OSHA complaints, we’ve signed petitions, we’ve demonstrated and we’ve become PPE supply clerks for a reason: Our members are still getting sick, our colleagues and loved ones are still dying, and our government has failed to protect them,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’ve fought to get PPE for our nurses on the frontline and for our educators, who are often expected to provide PPE out of their own pockets. As the pandemic continues to ravage our communities, with no competent guidance or support from the administration, we must pursue every venue to ensure communities and our members are safe.”
In March, the president issued a series of executive orders declaring a national emergency due to COVID-19 and delegating broad powers to Azar and Wolf under the Defense Production Act. The act is designed to ensure the provision of essential materials and goods during public health emergencies. The secretaries have failed to fully utilize their authority, leading to a shortage of PPE.
“UFCW members have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 in grocery stores, meatpacking plants and other essential businesses helping to ensure our families have the food they need,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International. “UFCW has secured a wide range of PPE for these workers throughout the pandemic, but a PPE shortage still exists for millions of workers who do not have a union standing with them. The federal government’s failure to close the PPE gap for workers is inexcusable and UFCW is joining with labor unions across the country today to demand action.”
Steady growth in COVID-19 cases nationwide has led to a shortage of lifesaving equipment — including gloves, masks, gowns and sterilizing supplies — for millions of essential workers. People of color are more likely to be part of the essential workforce and at higher risk of death from the coronavirus.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Labor Network for Sustainability Executive Director Michael Leon Guerrero. “Seven months after the shutdown, our partners in the labor movement are still reporting thousands of COVID cases among their members and hundreds of fatalities. Invoking the DPA is a human rights issue.”
“As the pandemic rages on in North America, more people are riding public transit and ATU members continue to bravely report for work often with little or no protection to provide critical transportation to keep communities moving,” said Amalgamated Transit Union International President John Costa. “The shortage of PPE has had a devastating impact on the ATU, as we have lost 89 brothers and sisters while thousands have been infected with the coronavirus. The ATU calls for the activation of the Defense Production Act to ensure the needed PPE is produced for transit and other essential workers to keep them safe on the job.”
“Our members have put their lives on the line every single day during this pandemic, and yet the TWU has had to fight tooth and nail to get the bare minimum in PPE that we need to feel safe on the job,” said John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers Union. “This country doesn’t stand a chance at an effective recovery from this pandemic if our elected leaders don’t do everything within their power to protect frontline workers.”
“People are dying, and more people are going to die because the Trump administration has totally failed to protect Americans who have been on the job throughout the pandemic keeping our country running,” said Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton. “Workers are terrified about the possibility of having to face a potential third surge of this COVID-19 virus during flu season without having access to adequate protective equipment. Trump and his cronies need to focus on the real problems people are facing and use every tactic within their power to get PPE produced and distributed to workers.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Labor Network for Sustainability is a non-partisan 501(c)3 dedicated to engaging workers and communities to build a transition to a society that is ecologically sustainable and economically just.