In a June 17 press conference, labor organizers and essential workers called on U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., to support the the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, a $3 trillion piece of COVID-19 relief legislation that includes a second round of stimulus checks and other worker-protecting provisions.
MaryBe McMillan, the president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, which hosted the conference, said this legislation, which is awaiting Senate approval after being passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15, comes at a crucial time.
“The wage gap between Black and white workers is the largest it’s been in 20 years,” McMillan said. “This racism in our economy means people of color are often underpaid, underemployed and unemployed, and not surprisingly it means more Black and brown people live in poverty.”
McMillan said policymakers should support legislative solutions in the act, like investing in infrastructure and putting people back to work, as well as other worker support policies, like raising the minimum wage, providing childcare subsidies, paid leave and medicaid expansion, to address these inequalities.
“Policies that, if they had been in place before COVID-19, we wouldn’t see the suffering we do now, especially in communities of color,” McMillan said.
William Munn, a policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center, said the HEROES Act will bring benefits to essential workers, who are disproportionately people of color, that will better protect their health and safety through the rest of the pandemic.
“This legislation puts resources in the hands of people who are deemed essential, and according to data, Black and brown workers have been much less likely to work from home,” Munn said. “They are much more likely to be deemed essential.”
For Sherita McCullers, a GoRaleigh transit worker, the effects of the pandemic are personal.
“Two weeks ago, I had to bury my godmother, she couldn’t beat or fight COVID-19. Last Wednesday, my brother was admitted into the hospital as well, and he’s fighting COVID-19, and it’s attacking his kidneys,” McCullers said during the conference. “So I know COVID-19 is real.”
McCullers said like many essential workers, she goes to work every day in fear.
“It’s very scary working on the frontlines,” McCullers said. “I live in fear every day, afraid that I might take something home to my family, knowing that working frontlines puts your life and others in harm’s way.”
Ivy Jones has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 27 years. At the briefing, she said USPS, which she said has given many Black workers like herself opportunities for stable income and socioeconomic advancement, is in danger due to COVID-19.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, the postal service has been placed in a financial crisis, and we’re facing it,” Jones said. “We need help in this next stimulus to stay solid.”
Jones also said President Trump’s previous comments and decisions have also put the Postal Service in danger.
In April, Trump threatened to veto the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act if bailout funding for USPS was included — preventing funding for the service from being passed.
“It’s not an accident that the current administration wants to get rid of the institution that provides opportunities for Black Americans, and that also happens to be unionized,” Jones said. “Black women make up 18 percent of public sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers. We represent the highest share of workers in the public sector.”
The HEROES Act would provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and over $1 trillion to state and local governments. Especially now, Jones said this funding is an essential part of addressing racism, which she said is linked with the pandemic's effects.
“The crisis of a public health pandemic, an economic free-fall, and long-standing structural racism are all connected, and Black Americans are feeling the most pain,” Jones. “To solve these problems, we cannot treat them separately, or deal with each individually."
Beyond monetary protections, the bill would also provide more coverage for COVID-19 treatment. Munn said provisions like these within the HEROES Act would help address a nationally disproportionate effect on people of color, which he said was partially due to heightened levels of preexisting, under-treated conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
“We’re seeing nationwide that African Americans are disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19,” Munn said. “Data from states such as Michigan, Illinois, New York, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana show that the percentage of African Americans who have been diagnosed with and who have died from COVID-19 are considerably higher than their representation of a percentage of the population should.”
Despite making up only 22.2 percent of the state’s population, as of June 18, Black patients make up 25 percent of coronavirus cases North Carolina’s 48,188 cases and 33 percent of the state’s 1,175 deaths according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Coronavirus Dashboard.
“Here in North Carolina, if current trends hold, far too many African Americans will die from COVID-19, far more than will be expected to die based solely on the state’s demographic makeup,” Munn said. "We find that unacceptable.”
Munn said in addition to this federal legislation, it is crucial for North Carolina’s government to expand on equity-focused policies, like the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, by expanding Medicaid and increasing unemployment benefits.
But for McCullers, supporting the HEROES Act is one tangible solution.
“It’s not going away, so I’m asking Senator Thom Tillis,” McCullers said. “We need to keep all frontline workers safe and secure. We need you to do your job, and support HEROES.”
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