Public Workers Union demands better working conditions, compensation for essential workers

The West Virginia Public Workers Union sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice earlier this week demanding better working conditions and compensation for essential workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

The letter sent to Justice on Monday states: “As this crisis progresses, workers throughout the country continue to assert they do not have the resources necessary to protect themselves (…) Workers everywhere continue to make difficult choices regarding their income, health and ability to provide for their families.”

In the letter, the union calls on state agencies and officials to take various actions aimed at protecting essential and state workers including:

  •  Authorizing and providing resources for public essential workers to work at home if their work can be completed via phone or internet.
  • Implementing a 20% hazard pay increase for public workers unable to work from home.
  • Providing “readily available” personal protective equipment for “anyone tasked with treating or otherwise caring for potentially infected populations.”
  • Prohibiting punishment of workers for attendance issues resulting from personal or family illness.
  • Ensuring all essential workers unable to work from home know they are entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.
  • Establishing free childcare facilities statewide.
  • Ensuring absences related to the coronavirus pandemic do not count against workers’ benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Overturning the statewide ban on collective bargaining.
  • Publicly endorsing universal single-payer health insurance via the Medicare for All Act of 2019, or HR 1384.

In a press release sent Thursday, the union provided further testimony for the demands outlined in its letter to the governor.

The release states: “West Virginia’s public workers are risking their lives and health to keep this state going—not just those in the health care industry, but all those who must continue to go to work throughout this crisis. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that the demographics for W.V. public workers reflect those of the state—aging with compromising health issues.”

The release states that emergency responders and hospital workers are not the only workers in need of more clear and more effectively distributed policies and directives.

Non Ringler, a child support specialist at the Kanawha County DHHR office, said both workers and supervisors are confused and under-informed about policies relating to sick leave throughout the crisis. She said those who are risking personal health to continue working need to know policy specifics to understand what options are available to them if they get sick.

“Because we deal with clients coming in the office, we are at high risk of contracting COVID-19,” Ringler said. “We don’t have gloves. We should all have gloves. There should be a supply of gloves at the front desk for incoming clients. We should have a clear, written safety protocol to address the safety concerns amid this crisis.”

In the Thursday press release, union leaders state they have received confirmation from Justice’s office that their letter was received and “has been forwarded to the appropriate division (…) for further review.”

The release states that union leaders believe the state has made significant improvements related to policy enforcement, safety standards and distribution of personal protective equipment since the governor received their letter.

“Our state’s leaders clearly understand the severity of this situation,” the release states. “It is our expectation that Gov. Justice will genuinely consider our demands and continue to improve the state’s response to this pandemic. We hope Gov. Justice and other state government officials take seriously our concerns and calls for open communication throughout this crisis.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].