Now is not the time

Graham Trainor

By GRAHAM TRAINOR, Oregon AFL-CIO president

As much as we all want to move on, to put the pandemic behind us, to get back to some sense of normalcy in our lives and in our workplaces, here we are. The Omicron variant is ravaging our communities, breaking records left and right, and yet again, overwhelming our healthcare system, wreaking havoc on our schools and childcare facilities, and compounding an already historically challenging period of time.

Working Oregonians have borne the brunt of this entire deadly pandemic, and this current surge is no different. But as hollow banners at workplaces proclaiming “heroes work here” and banging pots and pans in the evening to recognize and thank essential workers have slowly disappeared, frontline workers are now also being left without basic protections. If ever there was a time to double down on the tried and true strategies that we know will help us beat the virus, that time is now. 

Instead, workers are facing a different kind of trend.

Rather than renew and clarify guidance around the quarantine period being the full 10 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened it to five days with confusing and lackluster testing guidance even if we do have symptoms.  

Now is not the time. 

Subsequently, instead of federal OSHA expanding the existing protections for healthcare workers and creating a permanent rule aimed at protecting more frontline and essential workers in our economy, our nation’s leading occupational health and safety agency abandoned the only federal workplace protections for workers within the very healthcare system that is being overrun with new patients and spiking case numbers. 

Now is not the time. 

And rather than maintain existing workplace protections, reinstate hazard pay for frontline and essential workers, and redouble efforts to see workplace safety as a core strategy for beating the virus, we’ve seen some employers, even those in healthcare, forcing workers to come back to work while they are still sick with COVID-19 and certainly within the original 10-day quarantine window.     

Now is not the time. 

COVID-19 cases are up over 400% in the first two weeks in January. The daily average for new cases is currently nearly four times the previous record highs set last summer. Child care providers, including our family’s, are having to close left and right, our schools are seeing massive spikes in outbreaks further endangering educators, school employees and our children, and the National Guard has just been deployed again to assist our already overburdened hospitals and frontline healthcare workers.     

One of the most important and potent weapons we still have in our battle with COVID-19 is to keep workers safe on the job, and to make sure we have the flexibility and economic supports to stay home if we are sick or exhibiting symptoms. 

We all must do our part to support those who remain in the trenches of this battle by getting vaccinated and boosted, staying home when you are sick, and wearing a mask. 

As importantly, we also need elected leaders, public health experts, and employers to step up and remain vigilant in this fight as well. We are not out of the woods, and we can’t use economic impatience as our guide to reopening and moving forward.     

We must not take our foot off the gas in our battle with this virus, and we know that if we don’t make work safe for all working people, defeating the virus will ultimately be pushed even further down the road.  

Now is not the time to relent. We must push on. We must maintain strong protections for workers. We must continue the fight to keep work safe. This is still a matter of life and death for so many, and working Oregonians expect, and deserve, to be centered in policy discussions in the months ahead.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions.

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