Addressing the Concerns of Workers in the Time of COVID-19

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis stands and presents in front of a screen

We’re excited to present a guest post from Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, Executive Director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. Below, she has shared how a coalition organized to identify the largest challenges affecting workers and how to move forward on solutions. This overview presents how to identify the needs of workers, build relationships with local officials to support workers, and recognize the intersecting nature of workers’ lives and concerns around COVID-19, such as the already-existing challenges of language and immigration status. To the point of many of the workers we have highlighted, COVID-19 has impacted workers in serious ways, and elected officials can take concrete steps to help.  

Want to offer an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on Wisconsin’s workers or highlight a worker-focused project? Contact us.  

By Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

Gathering a Coalition

On May 14, 2020, a number of organizations concerned with the health and safety of frontline workers presented a webinar entitled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Low-Wage and Immigrant Workers.” The impetus for this webinar came from reports from the Workers’ Rights Center of Madison that workers were being called back to work under unsafe conditions and felt they had no recourse. The webinar was organized by Worker Justice Wisconsin and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, under the umbrella of the Dignity at Work Coalition.

Speakers from WJW, Voces de la Frontera, the Dane County NAACP Labor and Industry Committee, and South Central Federation of Labor made presentations, followed by discussion among all participants on the call.

From this meeting, some key issues were identified:

  1. Workers are afraid to return to work when working conditions are unsafe.
  2. At the same time, workers cannot afford to lose their jobs.
  3. Workers, especially undocumented workers, are afraid to complain about unsafe working conditions.
  4. There was a general lack of knowledge and understanding among workers about their rights: where they would go to lodge a complaint, and what help and resources, economic and otherwise, are available to them, either through federal and state COVID-19 relief funds or through private funds.

The speakers from the meeting formed an ad-hoc committee to begin to address these issues.

Determining Priorities

The committee decided to focus their first efforts on strengthening the Public Health Department order in Dane County. This order was judged to be the best and most detailed of the few COVID-19 orders in municipalities around the state, and the hope was that advocates could lobby the city and county leaders and Dane County Public Health to improve the order and then use it as a model for other municipalities.

On May 28, the committee met with Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, her chief of staff Mary Bottari, Josh Wescott, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s Chief of Staff, and Douglas Voegeli from the Public Health Department.

The committee’s asks included:

  1. That the complaint process for violations of the order be clear and widely available to every worker. There should be strong enforcement and penalty procedures in place to ensure all employers follow the order.
  2. That the order be readily available to every worker. This includes public health requirements, information about workers’ rights and how to report violations, an explanation of enforcement and procedures, and importantly, a list of aid available to workers (irrespective of immigration status) when they are laid-off work. This information should be posted in all places of employment in multiple languages – for example, Spanish, Hmong, and other prevalent languages spoken in Dane County.
  3. That the language of the order be strengthened to clarify beyond a doubt that employers are responsible for providing PPE in the workplace and for maintaining a safe and healthy work environment.
Part of the poster created to educate workers of their rights. You can download this poster by clicking the image.

Making Progress to Protect Workers

As of this writing, progress has been made in the following areas:

  1. A flyer has been created by Public Health, focused on educating employee about their rights. The flyer is available in Spanish, English, and Mandarin.
  2. The flyer includes a phone number as well as an email address by which an employee can file a complaint and (presumably) remain anonymous.
  3. Employers are required to post the flyer in the workplace.
  4. The flyer cites that the order will be enforced, and the Mayor stated at a recent press conference that the order would be enforced.
  5. The Mayor has told us that employees who are afraid of reprisals can ask one of our organizations to file a complaint on their behalf, to safeguard the worker’s anonymity.
  6. The ad hoc committee has been working with the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Destination Madison, and Downtown Madison, Inc. to get the poster disseminated to business owners. While the poster is mandated to be displayed in the workplace, there is still an issue of business owners knowing about the poster and that they are responsible for posting it.

Next Steps

This important work is continuing in the following ways:

  1. The ad hoc committee has asked Freedom, Inc. for help in translating the poster into Hmong.
  2. 9to5 Wisconsin has offered to have their interns research what is happening in other parts of the state and to discover where there are counties and cities where elected officials might be open to using Dane County’s order and poster as a model for their own locality. Unfortunately, the ad hoc committee has heard anecdotally that public health officials around the state are reluctant to enforce such orders, as they feel under threat by those who oppose mask orders and other ordinances.
  3. The ad hoc committee will continue to work with other advocacy agencies, Chambers of Commerce, and business organizations like Destination Madison to encourage these best practices among employers.

Interested in learning more about this work? Contact Rabbi Margulis here. If you are interested in sharing the work your organization is doing, please reach out to us here.