WMercedes Taylor was an airport security guard in Houston when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. She still remembers feeling vulnerable. She works the overnight shift, where she interacts with airline employees, police officers, passengers, members of the cleaning crew, and a regular influx of homeless people—but she says her employer did not provide personal protective equipment or take other precautions until her union, SEIU Texas, stepped in.
Taylor (70) was concerned that Taylor would get COVID-19, which could infect her grandchildren or children. But she also worried about everyone. As workers across other industries were, like her, deemed “essential” and asked to keep showing up at work through the pandemic, she feared for those who did not have a union to advocate on their behalf. “This is a big city and a very large county. You start to get lost and think maybe it doesn’t matter what I think,” Taylor says. “But essential workers undergird these businesses. And if we’re not there, the businesses are not going to run as smoothly as they would. So it’s really important that we’re protected, our lives are protected, our families are protected.”
A new effort in Harris County, where Houston sits, is designed to answer Taylor’s call. Next month, the county’s commissioners will choose five members to serve on a new Essential Workers Board, a local body that will offer low-wage laborers a formal say in workplace health and safety policies across the third most populous county in the U.S. The members will make non-binding recommendations to the Harris County Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity and other departments, and will advise the county’s commissioners court on how its policies and programs affect workers’ health and rights.
Harris County Essential Workers Board represents the latest attempt by workers to use the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and advocate for improved working conditions. Colorado saw a collaboration of researchers, farmworker advocates, labor unions, and farmers who helped pass legislation to improve wages, hours, and other protections. New York’s NY HERO Act required employers to create workplace safety plans, and workers be able to establish safety and health committees. This was a collaboration between labor and immigrant rights organisations. Los Angeles County created public health councils in California that enable workers from a variety of industries to provide advice on safety and to file complaints with the County Department of Public Health if they find something wrong.
Advocates say that these incremental improvements are essential for empowering vital workers and ensuring communities can be prepared for the next emergency. “This kind of infrastructure, if it’s maintained as a more permanent structure, is going to be able to respond and help overall public safety in a proactive way,” says Aquilina Soriano Versoza, executive director of Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California, which has worked on the public health councils in L.A.
‘Heroes’ without a voice in government
For the past two years, frontline workers have been championed as “heroes” for keeping industries like transportation, grocery stores and health care operating while other Americans worked from the safety of home. Some companies provided sick leave for such workers and hazard compensation in time of pandemic. However, hourly workers were most affected by the disease. They died at high rates from COVID-19 and suffered financial losses as a result. Public backlash to lockdowns and other pandemic precautions also led conservative lawmakers to resist public health officials’ recommendations. These circumstances sparked interest among frontline workers in unionization, which encouraged others to join forces to seek more proactive support from local governments.
In part out of that anger, the Harris County Essential Workers Board was created. Candido Batiz alvarez is a Houston construction worker who says that his own experience inspired him to advocate for the rights of workers. He says that he contracted COVID-19 while working at his company and then passed the disease to his wife. However, his employer refused him sick leave. The experience propelled him to testify before the county commissioners about the need for the essential workers board with the advocacy group Workers Defense Project, and now he hopes to be one of the board’s first members.
“I feel more empowered because I know we will have an avenue to be heard as workers, as human beings, also as parents, and members of our community at large,” Batiz Alvarez says in Spanish.
It will include five members of the Essential Workers Board who are low-income and represent a variety industries, including transportation, construction, homecare, education, food service, grocery, and transport. These five board members will be elected by the Harris County Commissioners Court. They will then serve three-year terms. By June, eight additional board members will be chosen from those who have been serving one to two year terms. Each month, the 13-member board will meet and present an annual report to Commissioners Court containing their recommendations.
While workers cheer the board’s possibilities, complications remain. The board’s role is purely advisory, and it does not have any enforcement power. Advocates say that’s by design: Workers wanted a seat at the table, but they also wanted a system that would be able to function in conservative states, like Texas, where state-level leaders often preempt local ordinances or policies. In the case of the pandemic for instance, conservative governors as well as state legislatures blocked county public-health commissioners from applying mask mandates. Also, election administrators were prevented from loosening COVID-19 voting regulations. Texas had its Republican Governor. Greg Abbott championed the bill which would have protected workers from COVID-19 hazards in localities and also abolished basic requirements, such as 10-minute water breaks that construction workers could receive despite extreme summer heat.
For this new effort, advocates focused on including workers who have not been at the forefront of conversations about pandemic “heroes” but who have faced significant risks so they could bring their firsthand knowledge of problems in the state to the process. “Texas is the deadliest state for construction workers in the country. This is something that workers were already talking about,” says Sandra Cisneros-Peeters, an organizer with Workers Defense Project, who noted that Texas is also the only state in the country that does not require employers to provide workers compensation.
For months, local labor organizations met to support the creation of the board. In November, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved the plan 3-2, with Democrats supporting and Republican commissioners opposing. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was a Democrat who told workers in March they needed to think outside the box.
“I challenge you guys to really help us figure out how to push the envelope. I don’t want to paper over the fact that we live in a state with a challenging climate toward workers with legislation,” she said. “So part of what we need to do here is think creatively about how we can push the envelope within county government and co-create and co-govern. Is it possible to do something that is feasible, realistic and yet smart, innovative, and aggressive? And so that’s the trust that I hope we can build together.”
Harris County Essential Worker Board supporters meet outside County Commissioners Court.
Harris County Essential Worker Board advocates met outside County Commissioners Court.
Prepare for the next emergency public
Workers’ efforts in other places around the country are seeing tentative success, too. In Colorado, the farmworkers bill is “really a stepping stone … for what protections can look like,” says Pamela Reséndiz Trujano, executive director of Colorado Jobs with Justice. “We know that we still have so much work to do in terms of making sure that there is actual enforcement and that it forces a cultural change within that industry.”
The law provides a number of protections to Colorado farmworkers, but it was met with strong resistance from farmers. Overtime regulations were also lowered from the original goals. Colorado Jobs with Justice, along with other advocates, recently sued the governor of Colorado. Jared Polis and the state’s labor department, alleging the overtime rules discriminate against farmworkers. In New York, the state Commissioner of Health recently ended the designation of COVID-19 as an airborne infectious disease that presents a serious risk of harm, which means employers are no longer required to implement the NY HERO Act’s workforce safety plans. In Los Angeles, protections from the public health council are only in effect until the declaration of a public emergency is made.
Advocates hope that the workers’ attention will allow them to tweak these protections in the future and make sure they last.
“Regardless of what happens with COVID, we are going to recognize that there are airborne infectious diseases and other issues happening every day,” says Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a community and labor group that worked to pass the New York legislation. “We cannot continue doing business in our country the way we have been. We need to learn the lessons of the pandemic and 2020 and give the essential workers not only a clap, but give them the protections and the wages that they need to be able to sustain.”
Batiz Alvarez, Houston views the increasing number of attempts around the country to be a positive sign.
“It’s inspiring workers to pass similar boards that actually provide a voice for workers,” he says, “and for workers to be able to realize all of their dreams, like basic health and safety protections that actually make workers feel valued.”
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