Advocacy Groups Want Better Worker Safety
Following COVID-19 outbreak at Kenosha Amazon facility, they urge legislators to reinstate protections.
COVID-19 infections continue to dog workplaces, challenging local and state health officials while sickening employees.
In Kenosha, an unconfirmed number of infections among workers at Amazon’s two facilities located northwest of the city’s downtown have vexed the county health agency.
And on Thursday, a coalition of advocacy groups urged Wisconsin lawmakers to adopt a series of measures to protect workers from the novel coronavirus following last week’s abrupt end to the state Safer at Home order.
The Kenosha County Division of Health “has struggled to receive coordinated cooperation from Amazon regarding the handling of COVID-19 cases within the company’s Kenosha campus,” said Dr. Jen Freiheit, the county’s health officer, in a statement Thursday.
In the absence of official estimates, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, working from text messages and other communications, calculated that at least 32 Amazon employees have been infected by the virus.
Freiheit stated that the county, potentially aided by the Wisconsin National Guard, was ready to offer testing for all Amazon employees at the company’s Kenosha operations.
“Without being in the facility, we remain unaware of whether employees have proper face coverings, and whether they are properly distanced from one another,” Freiheit stated.
The state Department of Health Services (DHS) stands ready to assist in investigating local outbreaks, including in workplaces, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, at a media briefing on Thursday.
“In general, we’re involved with all such public health investigations as individual cases and clusters of cases in workplaces or long-term care facilities are reported to us,” Westergaard explained. “If they are clustered in the workplace, we recognize that as an outbreak, we post it as a public health investigation and we make our team available for support.”
Letter to lawmakers
Worker safety is central to a letter that Kids Forward and a coalition of more than two dozen advocacy groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO to 9-to-5: The National Association for Working Women and Worker Justice Wisconsin, sent to state legislators on Thursday, urging them to reinstate measures that would protect the state from a new round of COVID-19 infections.
By throwing out the state Safer at Home order, the state Supreme Court “imperiled our state’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” the Kids Forward letter states.
The Kids Forward letter called on lawmakers to embrace “a comprehensive, evidence-based state response to the pandemic” to avoid “further and irreparable harm, especially for front-line health care workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of color who have already suffered disproportionately because of the pandemic.”
Alluding to the Legislature’s use of remote meetings during the time of the Safer at Home order, as well as the court’s use of online meeting technology to hold arguments and later discuss the lawsuit against the order, the letter states: “Like the legislators who filed the litigation and the state Supreme Court justices who decided the case, Wisconsin workers should not be forced to return to workplaces if that would put their health and their lives at risk, and thereby increase risks for all Wisconsinites.”
Failing to implement those safety measures, the letter states, could lead to a later spike in cases that would undermine whatever benefits returning to work too soon provide.
In suing to block Gov. Tony Evers and DHS from extending the Safer at Home order past its original April 24 expiration date, Republican legislative leaders argued that they should have a part in working out the state’s policies to protect residents from the pandemic.
Their lawsuit maintained — and the court’s 4-3 majority affirmed — that while state law authorizes health “orders” to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and makes no mention of legislative approval, such orders must be treated as “rules” that require legislative involvement.
After the ruling, the Evers administration submitted a scope statement for a new rule to replace the order, but the legislators rejected the statement and, according to Evers, said they would rely on local health departments to take charge of the matter. The governor has said they also told him they didn’t want any state restrictions.
The letter urges lawmakers to do more.
“Now the Legislature must shoulder the burden that they asked for and take responsibility for the millions of people, hundreds of thousands of small businesses, and our health care systems,” the letter concludes, “all of which are more vulnerable now than they were before this court ruling.”
Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.
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