Black frontline workers and labor leaders are calling on Senator Thom Tillis to support the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, and urging people to join them in the call to prioritize Black workers’ physical and financial health.
“It’s time to address the economic inequality and systemic racism that plagues this country and causes constant pain for our Black brothers and sisters,” said MaryBe McMillan, Charlotte-based president of the NC State AFL-CIO during a Zoom call last week. “We as a country and as a people are better than this.”
The HEROES Act would fund another round of $1,200 stimulus payments to individuals, while also setting up a fund for essential workers to receive pandemic premium pay and pushing employers to prioritize protections against contracting COVID-19. The act would also expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, unemployment insurance and paid sick leave.
During the June 17 Zoom call, McMillan discussed several policy solutions to combat racial and economic inequality, and focused heavily on the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion care package similar to the $2.2 trillion CARE Act passed in March.
Introduced by Democrats and passed through the House of Representatives by a narrow margin, the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to rebuff the package. The AFL-CIO strongly endorses passage of the HEROES Act, McMillan said, as it lines up with the organization’s Five Economic Essentials.
The Senate will take a two-week break from July 3-17, and is expected to vote on the act upon their return, though Wednesday’s announcement by Gov. Roy Cooper that Phase 2 of reopening will extend another three weeks makes things a bit more urgent. In the meantime, McMillan urged union members and allies to flood Senator Tillis’ office with calls to support the package.
“Most urgently, we need the HEROES Act and other legislation to deal with the impacts of COVID, especially on communities of color,” said McMillan. “Frontline workers are heroes, Black workers are heroes. It’s time that Senator Tillis and other elected officials recognize that and pass this legislation.”
The Heroes Who Need the HEROES Act
Black Americans have contracted and died from coronavirus at higher rates due to prolonged inequities and the imbalance of provided healthcare, and now with many workplaces reopening even as COVID-19 rates increase, some worry that Black workers are being put at unnecessary risk yet again.
Studies show that in North Carolina, there is a 6.6% unemployment rate for Black workers compared to the 3.3% rate for white workers in North Carolina. William Munn, a health policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center, discussed how COVID-19 is violently affecting people of color.
“There is a prevalence of Black workers in essential industries, often working multiple jobs for low pay and without health insurance,” explained Munn. “That’s why we’re calling on Senator Tillis to support our essential workers in this time of unprecedented crisis.”
Those who remain employed have been forced to accept the growing health risks. Each day they are forced to work with minimal safety protections, inexpensive protective equipment, and the anxiety of spreading the disease when they return home.
Sherita McCullers, a GoRaleigh transit operator explained how she is constantly overwhelmed with the worries of bringing home COVID-19 to her family. She mentioned that her late godmother passed away due to the virus and now her brother has been admitted into the hospital after contracting the disease.
“I know COVID-19 is real, and it’s not going away,” McCullers said. “So I’m asking Senator Thom Tillis, we need to keep all frontline workers … We need you to do your job and support the HEROES Act.”
Essential Workers at Odds with the Trump Administration
Aside from health concerns, COVID-19 has also brought economic destruction to office and administrative support businesses, decreasing employment opportunities for people of color. Businesses like JCPenney and Latam Airlines have faced bankruptcy thanks to the pandemic.
One of the biggest employers of Black workers in North Carolina and the country is the United States Postal Service (USPS), which President Donald Trump has publicly feuded with and refused to support financially, threatening to veto any congressional measures that included aid for the vital organization.
“The USPS has been a vital resource for American communities for over 200 years,” said Ivy Jones, a 27-year North Carolina postal service worker based in Raleigh, during the June 17 call. Jones discussed how the USPS has provided employment opportunities for African-Americans, and that the bankruptcy of this service could have disastrous effects.
“Black women make up nearly 18% of the public workforce, or about 1.5 million workers,” Jones said. “The current administration wants us to go backwards, but Black people won’t go backwards, the labor movement won’t go backwards. We refuse to go backwards.”