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Pandemic prompts concerns about worker safety; union leaders take action

As COVID-19 has altered the workplace, North Bay organized labor officials have seen renewed activism and outreach because the pandemic has shown the plight of people working under dangerous and challenging conditions.

That was most visible in July when members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers staged a five-day strike at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital to protest a lack of personal protective equipment and restrictions over paid time off.

It has emerged with concerns over the safety of farmworkers harvesting grapes, particularly during the Walbridge fire. Some have questioned whether more protection is needed for crews as they continue to pick during the 2020 grape harvest during periods of smoky, unhealthy air.

There has been progress legislatively. The labor movement had success this summer in spurring passage of ordinances in the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County that provide paid leave to union and nonunion workers of large companies if they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms or contract the virus. They also would apply to help workers with a sick family member and tend to child care needs, among other things, amid the ongoing pandemic.

“The truth is essential workers and gig workers are living on the edge. They are working every day during this public health crisis, many of them without paid sick leave, without health care and without the job protections they need,” said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which represents various unions with 25,000 members in the region. “Our objective is to raise the awareness among workers to ask their employers to go beyond what’s been done so far.”

Although progress has been made, challenges remain nationwide for organized labor. Foremost, the ranks of U.S. union workers hit a low of 10.3% of the workforce in 2019 at 14.6 million members, a decline of 0.2% from the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In labor-friendly California, however, the union rate last year stood at 15.2% of wage and salary workers, a 0.5% increase.

One hardship locally has been with UNITE HERE Local 2850, which represents housekeeping staff at Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country and Sheraton Sonoma Wine Country Petaluma. Roughly 85% of the union local’s hotel workers are furloughed as a result of a decline in leisure and business travel during the pandemic, said Wei-Ling Huber, president of the Oakland-based union.

“A few housekeepers have been working. ... It’s a fraction of the number that had previously been working,” Huber said.

The union is concerned the hotel sector may expand trial efforts of national lodging chains to encourage less daily room cleaning under the apparent guise of being more sustainable.

“Now you got a really extreme heavy workload for the room cleaners,” Huber said of the environment of not cleaning rooms every day. “That is the challenge that our room cleaners are facing. ... They are working much harder.”

Local United Parcel Service employees also have been working harder as more shoppers rely on home delivery to avoid going to stores and mingling with crowds.

The heavy shipping activity rivals that of the busy December holiday season, said Mandi Zarling, a driver who works from the UPS Petaluma depot and is a member of Teamsters Local 665.

“With this pandemic, we haven’t seen any letting up at all,” Zarling said of package delivery. She now makes 50 more daily stops than she did this time last year. That’s even as the company hired more than 30 drivers in the area to keep up with the workload. UPS drivers can average 10 to 20 hours of overtime a week at this juncture.

Zarling said she is thankful for the union backing to help her understand public health safety protocols during the pandemic. She noted the work in that area by Mike Yates, president of the Teamsters local, who has been helping members with pandemic-related questions and concerns.

Area labor leaders are keeping close watch on the safety of the county’s farmworkers, whose ranks can swell to as many as 5,000 during the ongoing wine grape harvest that began in August and is expected to go into October.

Before harvest began and the recent wildland fires ignited, vineyard workers were in the news with COVID-19 issues. There was one unidentified farmworker dormitory in Sonoma County where a worker was infected with the coronavirus, forcing others living there to be moved to an alternate site.

Last month as the Walbridge inferno fouled air quality, CAL-OSHA warned agricultural employers they must take steps to protect workers from wildfire smoke, by providing disposable respirators and N95 masks for voluntary use when most harmful particulate matter in the air reaches an unhealthy level. On Friday, the state agency proposed fines for 11 California businesses — none in Sonoma County — for not protecting their employees from COVID-19 exposure, with six of them in the ag sector.

“I think there is much more awareness, sensitivity to the conditions of farmworkers,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers Union. “There is also more often militancy by the workers themselves, where they are willing to confront issues that they may have not been willing to in the past.”

The farmworkers’ union represents workers at a few North Coast wineries including Balletto, Gallo of Sonoma and St. Supery, which Elenes said all have provided individuals with personal protection equipment necessary to do their jobs.

Local labor leaders also expressed concerns over special permits issued by Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith that allowed grape picking in mandatory evacuation zones during the Walbridge fire. North Bay Jobs for Justice and other farmworker advocates met with Smith on Friday to discuss the use of such permits and how workers could have potentially been placed in danger, said Mara Ventura, executive director of the jobs group.

“We really tried to hold his feet to the fire about how this was done, in a way that aligns with the obligations of growers and the rights of workers to have their health and safety prioritized,” Ventura said.

In the highly unionized health care field, the issue of worker safety during the pandemic has been especially fraught. Tammie Campbell, who has worked as a radiologic technologist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for 12 years, said she and her fellow workers felt compelled to call the recent strike because they have made tremendous sacrifices working in the pandemic. The operator of the hospital, Providence St. Joseph Health, has refused to budge in contract negotiations with the union although it sits on investments of $12 billion in cash, Campbell said.

Hospital officials disagreed with the union's view of negotiations and said in a statement Friday the company has modified its proposal for health benefits and paid time off.

"Our current proposals include multiple levels of wage increases, including expanded seniority-based increases,“ according to the statement. ”Our offer on the table also includes up to seven weeks a year in paid time off and a choice of health plans including one that offers premium-free coverage to our caregivers. We have also proposed to improve retirement benefits.“

Campbell, who is on the health care workers’ union bargaining committee, said, “We earn every penny, trust me.” The union represents 740 workers at Memorial hospital, which continues to grapple with a coronavirus outbreak among a group of fewer than 20 of its 2,000 employees.

Buckhorn, of the regional labor council, said area workers’ challenges in the pandemic are many and the group is committed to helping deal with them.

“I think labor has a very important role in making sure that workers that have gotten sick are not discriminated against once they recover,” he said. “And once we’re through this pandemic that those workers who have spent years and years and years helping a company be successful are not left behind.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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