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Labor, Environmental Groups Urge Emergency Action to Protect Frontline Workers From COVID-19

Legal Filing Demands Trump Administration Use Defense Production Act to Provide PPE, Prevent More Deaths, Illness


Labor unions representing health care workers, teachers, transit operators and millions of other frontline workers joined with environmental groups today to demand that the Trump administration take emergency action to provide adequate masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to these essential workers.

The legal petition demands that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf act immediately to ensure the manufacture and distribution of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The Trump administration has refused to properly manage PPE production and distribution, leaving states and industry to compete and frontline workers short of supplies.

"It's terrifying to risk your life every day just by going to work. It brings a lot of things into perspective," said Rick Lucas, a registered nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and president of the Ohio State University Nurses Organization local of the Ohio Nurses Association. "I'm not going to give up on protecting my patients, even though it's clear the federal government has basically given up on protecting us. More than 100 of my coworkers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and many of those positive tests were due to occupational exposure because of lack of PPE. This is inexcusable."

Today's petition was submitted by some of the nation's largest labor unions -- representing essential workers in healthcare, education, transportation and service sectors -- including the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, National Nurses United, American Federation of Teachers and Amalgamated Transit Union. The groups collectively represent more than 15 million workers in frontline industries that have suffered thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses from COVID-19.

"The Trump administration is AWOL on safety and refuses to help the front-line workers who are still in desperate need of more PPE," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "It is unconscionable, it is costing lives and in this petition America's essential workers are demanding answers, and most of all, action."

In March President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders declaring a national emergency due to COVID-19 and delegating broad powers to Azar and Wolf under the Defense Production Act. The act is designed to ensure the provision of essential materials and goods during public health emergencies. The secretaries have failed to fully utilize their authority, leading to a shortage of PPE.

"Frontline workers have ensured our country's survival through this unprecedented pandemic, yet the Trump administration has failed to protect them," said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program and lead author of the petition. "We wrote this petition to stand in solidarity with workers to stop this tragic, preventable loss of life. This exploitation of workers is the same type of abuse the administration and corporations inflict on the environment. We'll continue to fight these injustices on all fronts."

The petition was drafted by environmental lawyers to support labor leaders' calls for adequate PPE. A surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide has led to a shortage of lifesaving equipment -- including gloves, masks, gowns and sterilizing supplies -- for millions of essential workers. People of color are more likely to be part of the essential workforce and at higher risk of death from the coronavirus.

"The president's own executive orders recognized the national emergency that continues to plague this country. Yet five months and tens of thousands of deaths later, the administration continues to fail to provide leadership to effectively confront the crisis," said Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability. "In our ongoing work to address the risks to labor amid the climate crisis-in partnership with both labor and environmental allies -- we're grateful to the Center for Biological Diversity for using their expertise and resources to stand up for workers amid the pandemic."

The petition requests a response from the Trump administration within 15 days. If the administration fails to respond, the groups could sue in federal court to compel a response.

Labor Union Quotes

"Our union has filed complaints, we have signed petitions, we have demonstrated, and we've become supply clerks, negotiating equipment purchases around the world--because our members are getting sick, our colleagues and loved ones are dying, and our government has failed to protect them," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "When one in five COVID-19 cases are frontline workers, we see that workers are at risk every moment. We need to protect the protectors--that means getting them PPE but also listening to those with the frontline knowledge to tackle this disease."

"Essential workers -- mostly Black and brown workers -- have been forced to wear trash bags and doggie diapers as PPE, putting their lives on the line every day to keep our communities running," said Mary Kay Henry, international president of Service Employees International Union. "Workers aren't being honored or protected, they're being sacrificed. All of us want the same things: health, safety, security, and a better future for our children. That's why working people are demanding the Trump Administration take immediate, emergency action to provide sufficient PPE and to protect all workers."

"At a time when the skills of registered nurses, other health care workers, and essential workers are most needed, it is unconscionable that they are being treated as if their lives are worth less than others with this utter disregard for their safety," said National Nurses United Executive Director Bonnie Castillo. "Nurses are willing to be at the bedside caring for COVID-19 patients; their employers and their government should be willing to protect them with the PPE they need to do their jobs safely. More than 175 nurses have died from COVID-19. Countless essential workers have died. We need the Trump administration to immediately invoke the Defense Production Act and order the mass production and distribution of PPE."

"Flight attendants were on the front lines before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States," said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "We have been able to better protect ourselves thanks to our training in contagious disease management and our advocacy to ensure masks for flight crews, but the lack of PPE puts flight crews and all essential workers in danger. Flight crews will need a reliable supply of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and we need the federal government to step up with consistent, clear guidance for our industry."

"Many nannies, house cleaners and home care workers have had no choice but to risk their health to find work so they can put food on the table. Despite this, domestic workers have been the last to receive financial assistance, protective equipment or testing," said National Domestic Workers Alliance Executive Director Ai-jen Poo. "We need to remember domestic workers in this moment of crisis and make sure they receive the support they need. It is critical that essential workers receive personal protective equipment without delay."

"Since the coronavirus pandemic began, ATU members have been risking their lives each day on the frontlines of this global crisis often with little or no protection," said John A. Costa, president of Amalgamated Transit Union International. "The shortage of PPE has had a devastating impact on the ATU, as more than 80 of our frontline heroes have lost their lives and thousands have been infected with the coronavirus. The ATU supports the activation of the Defense Production Act to ensure the production of the needed PPE to provide transportation and other essential workers the necessary protection to stay safe on the job."

"When COVID-19 struck, transit agencies across the country were caught flatfooted and unprepared, triggering transit worker deaths and exposing riders to harm's way," said Transit Workers Union International President John Samuelson. "As a second wave of the virus hits the West Coast and threatens to re-emerge in already hard-hit systems, Congress needs to fund $32 billion in emergency supplement funding for public transit in their relief package so that transit agencies can continue operating safely with the necessary PPE for their workers. The time to take action is right now. Far too many transit workers have already perished in the line of duty. We must not allow the indifference or incompetence of those in power to wreak anymore havoc on our members."

"As states reopen and the number of COVID-19 illnesses and hospitalizations continues to rise to unprecedented levels, we need the president of the United States to stop abdicating his responsibility to protect workers who are putting their lives on the line to do their jobs," said Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton. "Leaving workers to fend for themselves while there are grave shortages of adequate PPE during a pandemic is unacceptable and un-American. CWA members and all workers need Donald Trump to do something useful for once and order the cronies he's put in charge of the federal government to use every tactic within their power to get PPE produced and distributed.

Read about why environmental groups like Greenpeace and are supporting this legal petition.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

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