Over fifty years ago, in a speech supporting striking Memphis, Tennessee sanitation workers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stated: “All Labor Has Dignity.” How profound a statement. Today, decades later, with our country facing health and economic crises, we are confronted by the truth of Dr. King’s statement. Many of us are now newly appreciative of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices made by millions of essential workers who truly are the backbone of a functioning society. Health care professionals who keep us healthy, food chain supply workers who keep us well-fed, transit workers who transport us around metropolitan areas, and, yes, sanitation workers who keep our streets clean. These are examples of some of the workers who are often-times overlooked during normal days, but now, because of a pandemic, are no longer hidden in the shadows.
However, unfortunately, with the arrival of COVID-19, public health guidelines and laws meant to protect these workers and others, and to provide some dignity to the working class are being violated. Around the country, however, workers are fighting back in order to save their lives. In a complaint filed in a Missouri federal court on behalf of a group of meatpackers, plaintiffs alleged that: 1) employees work without adequate protective gear; 2) workers are forced to occupy crowded spaces; 3) employees are not allowed adequate time to wash hands; and 4) workers are discouraged from taking sick leave. Here, employees are simply demanding that their employer follow federal guidelines in order to help keep them safe.
Transit workers in Miami-Dade County are also fighting back. Bus drivers and train operators sought injunctive relief in state court in order to safeguard their health. The transit workers alleged that the county failed to provide them with enough quality personal protective equipment and with sufficient supplies to clean and disinfect workspaces. The workers also alleged that the city failed to adequately sanitize buses and trains, and that the city failed to provide sufficient barriers in order to create a safe space between bus drivers and customers. All the Miami-Dade County transit workers sought was for the county to take the steps necessary in order to minimize their exposure to COVID-19.
In New York’s Westchester County, an association of registered nurses brought a lawsuit against a public benefit cooperation in order to protect its members from the workplace hazards caused by COVID-19. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated New York Labor Law §27-a in failing to provide the nurses a place of employment that is free from a recognized hazard that has caused or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The association alleged that the nurses were not supplied with an adequate number of N-95 respirator masks nor an adequate number of full-body impermeable gowns. The plaintiffs further alleged they were not adequately trained and supervised on the proper use of personal protective equipment and that they were also not provided safe changing areas. Plaintiffs further complained that defendants failed to properly ventilate areas with COVID-19 patients and failed to adopt practices to protect nurses with underlying conditions that made them more susceptible to the dangers of COVID-19.
These lawsuits are examples of how essential workers are now using the legal system in order to protect themselves from harm during this perilous time. These workers are using the protections afforded them by the law, in order to ensure that “social distancing” is not just a phrase but a reality in the workplace.
If you believe that your health or livelihood is currently threatened by your employer, one of the employment attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp may be able to help you. With offices in New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Nashville, San Diego and San Francisco, Sanford Heisler Sharp is well-positioned to assist you with possible civil litigation.
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