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Workers, advocates express safety concerns about reopening plan

Construction workers returned to the job in Boston's Seaport area Monday as Governor Baker began to ease coronavirus restrictions.
Construction workers returned to the job in Boston's Seaport area Monday as Governor Baker began to ease coronavirus restrictions.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Employees gearing up to go back to work — and those who have been working all along — still face significant safety hazards as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and the reopening plan unveiled by the Baker administration Monday morning doesn’t go far enough to protect them, advocates and workers said.

“It’s clear that workers’ voices and labor were not part of the plan,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the worker advocacy group Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, noting that there were no worker advocates on the 17-member reopening advisory group.

“First OSHA was missing in action,” she said — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been widely criticized for failing to hold employers accountable during the coronavirus outbreak — “and now Governor Baker has passed the buck.”

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Much of the responsibility falls on workers to report dangerous conditions, Sugerman-Brozan noted, and it’s not clear who workers should call to report them, and how they will be protected from retaliation for speaking up.

No resources were devoted to inspecting or addressing dangerous work conditions, she added, and it’s up to local boards of health or the state Department of Labor Standards to enforce safety rules. And neither has the staff to do so on the scale that’s necessary, she said.

The reopening plan focuses on preventing the spread of the virus through hand-washing, face masks, social distancing, and disinfecting. But penalties for employers who don’t comply will only be issued after they fail multiple times to address them, she noted.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito stressed at Monday’s new conference announcing the reopening plan that it’s vital that people speak up if conditions are unsafe.

"Compliance is a responsibility that an employer has," she said. "But who's going to hold them accountable? It’ll be a worker who doesn’t feel they’re putting that practice in place or a customer who doesn’t see these safety standards are in place."

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Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said Baker's plan is missing an appeals process for people who don’t think their employer is following the state's safety guidelines.

“Companies are saying they are doing the right things, but their employees are still protesting,” he said. “Employees don’t feel they have a voice.”

People going back to work also need to be given extra paid sick leave so they don’t feel pressure to work if they’re ill, which could spread the virus to coworkers and customers, noted Raise Up Massachusetts, a workers’ advocacy coalition pushing the state Legislature to grant workers emergency paid sick time.

Manufacturing and constructions companies were the first industries allowed to open on Monday. A construction worker who went back to work at the new Somerville High School site on Monday said he felt “a bit” safer than he did two months ago, with the few workers on-site wearing masks and having their temperature taken before being cleared to work. But he worries about what will happen as the project ramps back up. “The more people, the odds are higher,” he said. “I still think they’re jumping the gun by opening up this early.”

Suffolk, the general contractor on the job, noted that in addition to using infrared scanners for temperature checks, the company has given workers hard hats with monitors that sound alarms when they are within six feet of each other. And it has appointed COVID ambassadors to make sure safety protocols are being followed.

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Unite Here Local 26 has issued a six-page plan detailing safety guidelines for the hotel, gaming, and food service workers in its union, who aren’t going back to work in the first phase. A number of its members are people of color who live in multigenerational households and have health issues that put them at higher risks.

Union president Carlos Aramayo is especially concerned about older university dining hall workers interacting with college students coming from all over the world, an age group that isn’t known for abiding by social distancing protocols.

The union’s guidelines include COVID-19 tests for every employee before they return to work; temperature checks for every guest and worker; touch-free time clocks; plumbing and heating system inspections; and plexiglass shields at front desks. But even the strictest rules have limitations because of workers’ daily interactions with guests and people on public transportation.

"Without significant testing and tracing capacity, it's hard for us to imagine how you open any of our industries in a safe way," Aramayo said.

For essential workers who remained on the job over the past two months, including at many manufacturing plants, staying safe has often required banding together.

A worker at a seafood processing plant in New Bedford reported that at the beginning of the outbreak a manager responded to employee concerns by saying, “Only when we see someone dead will we close,” according to Adrian Ventura, executive director of the worker center Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, in New Bedford, speaking in Spanish through a translator.

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But after a group of workers backed by advocacy groups sent a letter in mid-April to more than 30 seafood plants and temp agencies in the region outlining their safety concerns, things have improved, Ventura said. The New Bedford Board of Health also recently issued two emergency orders mandating that industrial facilities and staffing agencies implement safety precautions, including misting production floors with hospital-grade disinfectant, when possible.

"We're seeing a lot of success when groups of workers make their demands known," Ventura said. "The workers, they know what they need to be safe."

Still, he’s getting 60 calls a week from workers with concerns about COVID-19, and more changes are needed, including additional microwaves in the break room so workers aren’t clumped together at lunchtime and more staggered breaks to ensure people can wash their hands frequently.

Employers who belong to the Associated Industries of Massachusetts are comfortable with the regulations issued by the Baker administration, said spokesman Chris Geehern, and know they have to work together with employees to make them work.

"This really has to be a collaborative enterprise between the employers and employees," he said.

Lightspeed Manufacturing in Haverhill, a maker of electronic circuit boards, remained open during the shutdown, making protective breathing devices by attaching antiviral filters to the face masks used by scuba divers. Lightspeed, which said it has had no COVID-19 infections among its workforce, hired a former hospital administrator to set up a safety program that includes a daily health questionnaire for each arriving worker, along with a temperature check. Workers are also subject to random temperature checks throughout the day. Everyone wears masks, gloves, and eye protectors. Lunch is catered every day from a nearby restaurant, so there’s no need to go out and risk possible contamination.

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At the General Electric aviation plant in Lynn, which has also continued operating, workers and their union have been speaking out about safety issues since the beginning, and conditions have improved, said Adam Kaszynski, president of IUE-CWA Local 201. But employers just reopening may be more worried about faltering revenues than worker safety, he said: “They’re going to be putting the squeeze on employees to try to make it out of this.”

The company is doing daily temperature checks and regular “safety walks” with the union, and has increased cleaning and marked off six-foot areas to keep people apart. But Bobby Eldridge, a custodian at the plant, said there are still issues getting enough protective equipment, and some people are wearing T-shirts and bandannas as face masks. And it’s hard to tell how much cleaning is being done. On Monday, “I saw the coffee stain on the floor that’s been there for a month,” he said.

Two workers tested positive just last week, of about a dozen overall, according to the union.

“Once you get a confirmed case, it’s like hitting the reset button,” Eldridge said. “That feeling on the floor of, ‘Oh great, this thing isn’t going away.’”

Hiawatha Bray, Larry Edelman, and Tim Logan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.