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Coronavirus Update: South Bay Lawmakers, Unions Push For Greater Protections For Essential Workers

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- A coalition of workers' rights groups, labor unions and local elected officials in the South Bay are pushing for greater protections for essential workers during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With much of the country closed for business in an effort to encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19, only those businesses and workers deemed essential have been allowed remain on the job.

But there have been ongoing reports that such workers, from ride-hailing service drivers to health care workers to fast food restaurant employees, are being expected to work without protective equipment, access to proper sanitation supplies, hazard pay and paid sick leave.

Workers say that without these and other protections, they are not only risking their own lives and the lives of their families, but also risk spreading the virus.


"There are 60 million Americans doing this (kind of work)," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara. "Still going to work, doing physical labor.  They are not being properly treated."

Khanna, who joined Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and a group of local workers on a video conference panel discussion Wednesday, has proposed the "Essential Workers Bill of Rights" in order to ensure that workers on the front lines of the pandemic response are treated fairly and kept safe.

The bill of rights includes provisions that would ensure workers have access to health care, child care, workplace safety requirements, paid sick leave, family medical leave and whistleblower protections, among other things.

Khanna and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who co-authored the plan, hope to have it included in the next federal relief bill.

"We need to make sure workers are protected, that they have basic supplies like masks and gloves and social distancing at the workplace," Khanna said. "We need to make sure they are being paid for the risks that they are taking.

"The fact that we have to spell this out is really infuriating," he said.

Khanna's anger was echoed by several panelists, including Carlos Ramos, a Lyft driver and member of the workers' rights group Gig Workers Rising.

Ramos said that the virus didn't cause the problems in the so-called gig economy, but it has highlighted and exacerbated them.

"I am an essential worker but during this pandemic I feel essentially forgotten," Ramos said.

Ramos said that he's been misclassified as an independent contractor by his employer and so isn't eligible for benefits or worker protections.

"We have to make it crystal clear to these companies that exploitation through misclassification will never be innovation," he said.

Micaela Garza is a McDonald's worker from San Jose and a member of the Fight for $15, a workers' group pushing the fast food chain to increase wages and accept unionization.

Garza said workers at her restaurant had to walk off the job three times before they were given personal protective equipment.

She also said that many workers feel pressured to avoid calling in sick because they don't have access to paid time off.

"Paid sick days feel more important than ever," she said in Spanish though an interpreter.

"We haven't been able to pay rent in April and I know we won't in May," Garza said. "We should not have to chose between rent and health."

People who need help navigating the complex federal, state and local COVID-19 relief opportunities can call the Santa Clara County COVID-19 assistance hotline at (408) 809-2124.


© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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