Labor unions representing healthcare staff, teachers, transit employees, and millions of other frontline workers joined with environmental groups on Thursday to sue the Trump administration for its failure to protect essential workers from Covid-19 by providing an adequate supply of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment.
"Nurses will do whatever it takes to care for patients who are fighting this virus, but we need the tools it takes to do our jobs. It's disgraceful that we still can't count on an adequate, reliable supply of PPE."
—Karen Ballentyne, registered nurse
In their lawsuit (pdf), the plaintiffs—the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Labor Network for Sustainability, AFL-CIO, AFT, SEIU, USW, and additional unions representing aviation, communications, food, and transportation workers—point out that since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the country's essential workers have been disproportionately exposed to and impacted by the devastating disease, which has killed more than 211,000 people in the U.S.
"The federal government is abandoning essential workers and treating them like they're disposable," said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program. "These are teachers and nurses and bus drivers who have made sure our country survives during this crisis."
"We stand in solidarity with them," Su added, "and will do everything possible to prevent this tragic, preventable loss of life."
The plaintiffs argue that essential workers have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus due to the federal government's failure to utilize its power granted by the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ensure the adequate production and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), which would help prevent frontline workers from contracting and dying from Covid-19.
"President Donald Trump and his administration have mishandled the Covid-19 crisis from the very beginning," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). "Their failure to fully utilize the DPA to produce vitally-needed PPE is a prime example of their unwillingness to do what is necessary to keep Americans safe and healthy."
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) echoed Casey, saying that Trump "should have used the DPA to organize systematic domestic production of all of the supplies we need to address the Covid-19 pandemic and protect frontline workers."
"Failure to act in this worst-case scenario," Levin added, "has resulted in the unnecessary death of tens of thousands of our fellow Americans, pain and anguish for millions, and an economic collapse we will be climbing out of for many months to come."
BREAKING: Labor unions joined environmental groups to sue the Trump admin over its failure to provide #PPEforAll and #ProtectEssentialWorkers from #COVID19. Proud to stand with them in this fight they wouldn't have to wage if Trump would just do his job. https://t.co/eaiVETvw2u— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) October 8, 2020
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., coincides with a coronavirus outbreak in the White House, an uptick in infections in multiple states bringing the U.S. caseload to over 7.5 million, and Trump's undermining of congressional negotiations on a much-needed economic relief and public health package.
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The case comes after Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf ignored a legal petition demanding the immediate production and distribution of PPE that was submitted in August by the same groups and supported by scores of additional unions and advocacy organizations.
"This country doesn't stand a chance at an effective recovery from this pandemic if our elected leaders don't do everything within their power to protect frontline workers."
—John Samuelson, Transport Workers Union
In the two months since the labor and environmental groups filed their initial petition, the number of coronavirus infections in the U.S. has surged by 50%, or 2.5 million cases. Experts expect the situation to become even more catastrophic this fall and winter with the onset of flu season and with cold weather increasing the amount of time people spend indoors, where the risk of transmission increases.
"People are dying, and more people are going to die because the Trump administration has totally failed to protect Americans who have been on the job throughout the pandemic keeping our country running," said Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Chris Shelton. "Workers are terrified about the possibility of having to face a potential third surge of this Covid-19 virus during flu season without having access to adequate protective equipment."
The plaintiffs argued in a joint statement that the failure of HHS and DHS to respond to the earlier request for emergency action violated federal law. They also explained that the ongoing refusal of the federal government to effectively manage the manufacturing and allocation of PPE has forced states to compete with each other as frontline workers endured, and sometimes died as a result of, shortages of lifesaving supplies.
"Nurses will do whatever it takes to care for patients who are fighting this virus," said Karen Ballentyne, a registered nurse at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles and a member of SEIU Local 121RN. "But we need the tools it takes to do our jobs. It's disgraceful that we still can't count on an adequate, reliable supply of PPE."
Denise Abbott, an emergency room nurse in Buffalo, New York, and a member of CWA Local 1168, said that "it's difficult for healthcare workers to get supplies on a daily basis because employers are conserving what they have, and having to ask or find PPE on our own is a horrible practice."
"Staff still have to reuse masks for the entire day unless they're dirty, damp, or damaged," Abbott added. "PPE must be at the ready and used properly if we're ever going to see an end to this crisis."
The lawsuit asks the court to direct Azar and Wolf to use the DPA to facilitate "the mammoth action necessary to safeguard the millions of essential workers powering the country's survival, in spite of their own devastatingly disproportionate rates of mortality and morbidity."
United Steelworkers International president Tom Conway stressed that "we cannot allow this dangerous shortage of PPE to become the new normal."
"This country doesn't stand a chance at an effective recovery from this pandemic," said John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers Union, "if our elected leaders don't do everything within their power to protect frontline workers."