The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday January 16th

N.C. public service workers seek relief from officials as COVID-19 risks escalate

<p>Charlotte City Workers Union organized a rally at City Hall on Monday, March 2, 2020. Speaking to the crowd is Dimple Ajmera, City Council member in support of Medicare for All, running for State Treasurer. Photo courtesy of Miranda Eltson.&nbsp;</p>
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Charlotte City Workers Union organized a rally at City Hall on Monday, March 2, 2020. Speaking to the crowd is Dimple Ajmera, City Council member in support of Medicare for All, running for State Treasurer. Photo courtesy of Miranda Eltson. 

In the past, Faydene Alston had only been a floor monitor in Davis Library. She took out the trash and cleaned floors. 

But when concerns about the spread of COVID-19 escalated in North Carolina, her boss told her to begin disinfecting tables, stair rails and door knobs in the library with Clorox wipes as well. Alston, a housekeeper at UNC for around 20 years, continued going to work from the time campus operations were officially reduced on March 11 until March 18, when she arrived at Davis Library and discovered it had closed. 

She said nobody had been on campus between those dates. 

“I felt like, the day my daughter got out of school, that I should have been out too,” Alston said. 

Alston and other members of UE local 150, the union for North Carolina’s public service workers, are increasingly concerned about the safety of their day-to-day work duties.

These concerns reached new urgency with the death of Raleigh sanitation worker Adrian Grubbs last Wednesday due to complications related to COVID-19. Grubbs was a member of UE150 until he left the union around a year ago after being promoted to a supervisor position, according to Dante Strobino, an international representative for the union chapter.

As the coronavirus’ expansion continues raising risks for essential state employees, UE150 has sent individual letters in recent weeks to Governor Roy Cooper, Raleigh city leaders and the UNC System Board of Governors, expressing concerns and calling for relief measures.

UE150’s letters — sent to Cooper on March 16, Raleigh leaders on March 17 and the BOG on March 19 — called for “commonsense” policies from each of the authoritative bodies. Those policies include, but are not limited to:

  • Establishing a minimum 14-day sick day bank for every worker impacted by the pandemic, which does not draw from earned sick and vacation time, eventually leading towards a universal paid sick leave law.
  • Providing personal protective equipment for anyone tasked with working during the state of emergency, including N95 masks, gowns and gloves. 
  • Establishing free child care facilities for all state and local government employees. 
  • Compensating workers who are forced to stay at work under quarantine, and covering patients infected with COVID-19 with double-time hazard pay.

UE local 150, the union for North Carolina’s public service workers, sent a letter to Governor Cooper on March 16, 2020 calling on the state to enact “commonsense” policies to protect workers in potentially dangerous situations related to the pandemic. The union got a response from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Raleigh City Manager Ruffin Hall responded to UE150’s letter on March 19. Hall stated in his response that the city’s Office of Emergency Management is “facilitating a cross-departmental team to assist in our response,” and that the team is “working hard” to respond to the needs of the community.

The City of Raleigh provided The Daily Tar Heel with a list of numerous steps it is taking to protect waste services employees, which included staggering shifts, taking employees’ temperatures and providing protective gear such as latex gloves and masks.

The BOG had not responded to UE150 by the time of publication, nearly two weeks later. The state’s public higher-education board also did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the DTH.

The union did get a response from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services a few days later. Kody Kinsley, the department’s deputy secretary for behavioral health and intellectual and developmental disabilities, set up a phone call with union members soon after. 

Kinsley told the DTH he has been talking to union representatives “almost every other day” about updates and language for emails that he has sent to healthcare facility staff across the state.

Kinsley said he thinks “the vast majority of things on that (UE150) list were already in the works” when the union sent its letter, and that the state’s HHS department is committed to making sure no one’s pay is impacted by the coronavirus and its resulting workplace shutdowns.

“We want to support them and we want to make sure that if they are sick, they can stay home to be well,” Kinsley said. “We’re not interested in anyone being penalized in any way here.”

Alston, who is a “permanent” worker at UNC in her housekeeping position, has not worked in the time since the library’s closing, but she is receiving emergency administrative leave. 

Becci Menghini, vice chancellor for the department of human resources and equal opportunity and compliance, emailed University employees on Friday stating that employees who are already on paid administrative leave will continue receiving the paid leave "through the end of April," but that this includes “additional restrictions.” The email did not specify any such restrictions.

UNC sent an update to all University employees on March 27, 2020 which extended paid administrative leave for some employees, including Faydene Alston — a UNC housekeeper — through the end of April, as well as setting out other new guidelines in response to COVID-19.

Kinsley said all state workers have been granted emergency sick leave, and they are working to build a stockpile of protective gear like masks, gowns and face shields. They are also working on ways to provide childcare for hospital workers and people who can’t work from home, he said, though no policy has been announced yet.

Kinsley referred to the state human resources manual on communicable disease emergencies as his department’s guide. He complimented staff for making a policy that was last updated in 2017, but covers current areas of concern regarding the coronavirus which many had not foreseen.

The policy states that mandatory employees will be granted time-and-a-half pay for hours the employee is required to report and remain on site.

Kody Kinsley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who has been communicating regularly with UE150, said the state HR policy plan for Communicable Disease Emergency already addresses a lot of the union’s concerns.

“We are part of a broader state HR system, and so we’re working closely with state HR to figure out how we can have every tool at our hands to compensate our state employees fairly and equitably, and also make sure they have everything that they need to protect themselves,” Kinsley said.

Before COVID-19 escalated to its current presence in North Carolina, UE150 held rallies across the state on March 2 calling for support of the Medicare for All act of 2019. UE150 President Bryce Carter told the DTH that the coronavirus has intensified existing needs on a large scale, some of which could be solved by policies his union has advocated for.

“Something like this kind of shows where there’s a lack of resources, supplies, a lack of personnel,” Carter said, “so it brings those points out even more in these times.”

@elizltmoore

special.projects@dailytarheel.com

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