Richmond, VA – The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) sent the below letter to Governor Ralph Northam. VLBC calls on the Governor to use the full extent of his powers as Governor to protect and support all of Virginia’s workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those essential workers risking their lives and well-being every day on the frontlines in our fight against this virus.
Among VLBC’s requests are providing overtime, hazard pay, and paid sick leave for essential workers; expanding access to PPE and free testing for essential workers; and implementing measures to bolster the safety of our food supply during this crisis. In addition, VLBC asks for updating worker protections regarding unemployment benefits, workers compensation, and other worker support resources during this pandemic.
May 7, 2020
The Honorable Ralph S. Northam
Office of the Governor
Patrick Henry Building, 3rd Floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Dear Governor Northam,
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) writes to urge you to use the full extent of your powers as Governor to provide our essential workers with the protection and support they need and deserve while they risk their lives and well-being every day on the front lines of our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
These workers are unsung heroes. Many of them remain out of sight -- often because of the very nature of their jobs -- and therefore are too often left behind. In addition, a substantial percentage of these essential workers are Black Virginians and Virginians of Color. For example, according to PHI National, in 2017 direct home health care workers in Virginia identified as 51 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. The VLBC therefore also supports the requests of SEIU and UFCW Local 400 for providing our essential consumer-directed home care workers, grocery store workers, and food processing workers with the support and compensation they deserve.
As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our communities, and as frontline workers continue to provide essential work (e.g., keeping food on our tables, caring for our loved ones), we urge you to take the following actions in support of all our Commonwealth’s workers:
- PROTECT ALL WORKERS
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shine a light on the essential status of many overlooked, underpaid, and underprotected workers, we call on you to use the full extent of the powers at your disposal to ensure that workers in property services, airports, hospitals, fast food restaurants, farming, as well as other low-wage workers, are protected and fairly compensated for their work on the front lines of this fight.
Therefore, the VLBC encourages you to:
- Provide layoff protections via back-pay and wage replacement for any airport workers affected by airlines reducing staff or hours.
- Ask the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to expand its Workers Wage Policy to include up to 14 days of paid sick leave.
- Ensure that upon any re-opening of the economy, working people without access to PPE can choose not to return to work. We ask you to clarify that under such circumstances, where an employer attempts to force workers to engage in activities that would jeopardize their health, workers would have a good cause to quit and would therefore be eligible for unemployment benefits.
- Call a special session to address issues related to the pandemic and urge legislators to consider legislation that would protect our essential workers on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, including:
- Paid sick leave legislation that would provide workers throughout the Commonwealth with at least 14 paid sick days -- which is the number of quarantine days that the CDC recommends for a patient infected with COVID-19. Virginia’s workers should not need to weigh losing their jobs against their own health and safety.
- Workers Compensation legislation that would classify COVID-19 as a presumed occupational disease in certain circumstances for essential workers. We cannot ask our frontline workers to regularly put themselves in situations with a high-risk of exposure to COVID-19, and at the same time retain a structure that may deny many of them approval of workers compensation benefits after contracting the virus. Our Commonwealth’s workers who risk their well-being at the front lines of this pandemic must be provided with proper support if they end up becoming infected with COVID-19.
- USE CORONAVIRUS RELIEF FUNDING TO PROVIDE OVERTIME, HAZARD PAY, AND PAID SICK DAYS FOR CONSUMER-DIRECTED HOME HEALTH CARE WORKERS
Home care workers are part of the Commonwealth's strategy, even in normal times, to keep some elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients in their homes to receive care instead of over-burdening and adding pressure to the brick and mortar health care system. At present, Virginia’s attendants earn $9.40 per hour, and $12.17 per hour in Northern Virginia, with no benefits.
According to federal guidance released on April 22 from the United States Treasury Department, funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) can be used towards the following:
- Funding overtime pay for consumer-directed home health care workers. Every member of our Caucus voted for, and House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian championed, the inclusion of more than $9 million in the General Assembly’s approved budget to authorize time and a half up to 56 hours for a single attendant who works more than 40 hours per week. We urge you to use CARES Act funding to provide these workers with the overtime they deserve now more than ever.
- Providing 14 paid sick days for consumer-directed home health care workers who work on average 20 or more hours per week. Providing these sick days will not only create comfort for elderly and disabled populations receiving in-home care from home health care workers but will also protect attendants from having to decide between their livelihood and health. It is estimated that this would cost approximately $8 million. We urge you to use CARES Act funding to provide them with the life-saving paid sick days they deserve now more than ever.
- Using CARES Act funding to provide hazard pay to consumer-directed home health care workers. With compensation for personal care attendants at $9.40 per hour across most of the state, and a still-too-low $12.17 in Northern Virginia, we need to ensure that this workforce has a living wage as it works with at-risk populations in jobs that can’t be done with telework options. Our consumer-directed home care workers are on the job today, and every day, leaving their loved ones to care for our at-risk elderly and disabled populations. Providing this workforce with hazard pay in this form will ensure that home care workers don’t have to care for multiple patients. Current pay levels, without hazard pay, often leaves home care workers to take on multiple patients at a time in order to earn more pay. When such workers are forced to care for multiple patients, it raises the risk of acquiring and transmitting COVID-19. To avoid such increased risk of COVID-19 transmission both among workers and their patients, home health workers deserve hazard pay and at least $15 per hour for the rest of the calendar year.
- EXPAND ACCESS TO PPE AND FREE TESTING TO CONSUMER-DIRECTED HOME CARE WORKERS, GROCERY STORE WORKERS, AND FOOD PROCESSING WORKERS
Although often overlooked and underappreciated, grocery and food processing workers are also essential, and this crisis has proven that without the hard work they do every day, Virginians would not have food on the table. Since the beginning of this pandemic, they have been putting their lives on the line by continuing to show up to work despite hazardous conditions and low pay. A recent study by The Commonwealth Institute shows that over one third of grocery, convenience, and drug store workers live on less than 200% of the federal poverty line and more than one in ten have no access to health insurance.
As Virginia begins to receive its orders of personal protective equipment (PPE), we urge you to direct the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) to ensure adequate access to PPE for consumer-directed home health care workers, grocery store workers, and food processing workers -- in addition to providing both workforces with training on PPE best-practices and best uses.
Specifically, personal care attendant grocery store workers and food processing workers need to be provided with surgical masks and gloves. Providing these workers with life-saving personal protective equipment that shields them from contracting and spreading the highly contagious coronavirus is imperative.
In addition to PPE, the VLBC urges you to work with VDH to create and implement a plan that results in free and immediate access to testing for COVID-19 for these critical workforces. Both clients and providers of consumer-directed in-home care -- no different than nurses and patients that work at a brick and mortar facility -- deserve to have the comfort and security that comes with knowing their care is being provided by a worker who has access to testing. In addition, grocery stores remain essential businesses with hundreds of customers coming in and out daily. The only way to prevent stores and food processing facilities from becoming places where this virus can easily spread is to ensure that everyone who works in them has access to free, rapid-result testing.
- PUT MEASURES IN PLACE TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF OUR FOOD SUPPLY
Due to a lack of guidance from the federal government, many states and other jurisdictions have put in place their own guidelines for grocery stores and food processing facilities. This includes instances where Governors and Mayors have taken the lead on forcing food processing facilities to close where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has refused to act in the best interest of workers and consumers. In order to ensure the safety of our food supply and the health of all Virginians, we support the asks of UFCW Local 400 and urge you to take the following steps:
- Institute customer limits and reduced hours. To reduce exposure for customers and employees, grocery stores and pharmacies must be required to limit the number of customers in a store to 10 per 10,000 square feet with a maximum of 50 customers at a time. Stores should provide security for this. Hours should be limited to 7am-9pm to allow time for cleaning and restocking while customers are not in the store.
- Require cleanliness and hygiene standards. Handwashing facilities must be provided, and employees should be given sufficient break time to wash their hands as necessary, and at a minimum every 30 minutes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer should also be available to customers and employees as well as disinfecting wipes at the point of entrance and throughout the store for carts, cash registers, check stand belts, and touch screens with specific employees designated to given time to ensure that cleaning guidelines and other practices set by the CDC are followed. If customers bring reusable bags, they should be required to bag their groceries themselves. Customers must be required to wear masks or face coverings at all times, and masks and gloves should be provided to all employees.
- Introduce further social distancing requirements. These businesses must institute marked social distancing lines at check stands, service counters, and the entrance to stores to ensure that employees and customers remain six feet apart. Any self-serve food stations must be closed and all free sample promotions should be ended. In addition, self check-outs should be closed, which cannot be operated while keeping a six-foot distance. Further, these stores should only allow every other check-out stand to be open and should close aisles while they are being stocked.
- Implement enhanced protections at food processing facilities. Employers should provide masks and gloves to all employees. Social distancing of six feet must be enforced on production lines and in break rooms, lunch rooms, locker rooms, and other common areas. If this requires slower line speeds, then lines must be slowed to accommodate social distancing. Information on proper social distancing must be posted and communicated in all languages used by employees at a facility.
It is incumbent on us as public servants to look out for those Virginians who are sacrificing their safety and lives for the general welfare of all. Therefore, VLBC urges you to act quickly to use your authority as Governor to ensure that these workers have access to overtime pay, paid sick leave, hazard pay, free COVID-19 testing, and PPE.
Member, 74th District
Virginia House of Delegates
Chair, Virginia Legislative Black Caucus