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City workers “on the front lines” demand better protections amid pandemic

A petition says the city isn’t doing enough to safeguard employees who provide critical services.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

UPDATE: Since the initial publication of this story on March 16, the Mayor’s office has communicated (PDF) that it will guarantee two weeks paid sick leave for employees with symptoms consistent with those of COVID-19 and for employees particularly vulnerable to the virus—i.e., immunocompromised workers—and workers taking care of sick family members. The requirement that workers provide a doctor’s note or medical documentation of illness will be waived.

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As businesses, schools, and public organizations suspend operations, nurses, physicians, and grocery store workers have been identified as the most vulnerable and also critical public front in the face of COVID-19 (the coronavirus). In the City of Madison, where K-12 schools closed Monday, the University of Wisconsin mandated the exodus of students from residence halls last week, countless bars and restaurants have closed shop, and white collar workers have moved to report in from home to preempt the spread of the virus, city workers—firefighters, bus drivers, and mechanics, among others—remain at work and exposed to the spread of the virus. 

A number of these workers say that their employer —the City of Madison—has failed to protect them as they work through the pandemic. Workers have submitted to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and the city’s 20 alders a petition—drafted on March 13—demanding municipally-provided worker protections during the pandemic. Municipal workers demand that the city provide protective gear, including masks, gloves, and sanitizer; additional paid time off for quarantined workers; and guarantee that any state- or city-mandated closures will not impact worker pay. 

The petition, which has garnered nearly 400 signatures since going live over the weekend, notes that “for most City employees, there is no opportunity to work from home: bus drivers, firefighters, clerks, mechanics, parking attendants, and many others have jobs that must be physically present to perform,” and argues that “city employees must choose between coming to work sick or potentially losing income or our jobs.” 

At the time that the petition was drafted, the City required that workers on 14-day quarantine use their annually-allotted sick days to maintain pay while off the job, binding them to a policy that did not take into account the precarity of community health during a global pandemic. City workers facing the possibility of vastly reduced sick time, or unpaid time off for self-quarantining confront the prospect of working while sick and risking injury to themselves, and the public, in the process.

A public notice, released just after 7 p.m. on Monday, clarified that workers could “borrow against” future sick leave, and stipulated that workers were guaranteed two weeks off in the case of emergency quarantine. The notice does not make mention of guaranteed pay or protective materials like masks. Rhodes-Conway laid out more details on leave options Monday in a memo to city workers (PDF).

“We are on the front lines,” says Nikki Sampson, who works in the service lane for Madison Metro Transit. “We are the bus drivers, we’re the bus cleaners, and you are going to tell us that if we get sick and quarantined for two weeks, that it’s going to come out of our sick time?” 

For bus drivers, who come into contact with hundreds of passengers throughout the day traversing routes across the city, exposure to disease always represents a threat. The spread of a virus like this one, which has prompted the Center for Disease Control to recommend against hosting group events of 50 people or more and to “[maintain] … approximately 6 feet” between people when possible, poses an immediate threat to workers whose services demand in-person contact. And the state of Wisconsin has gone so far as to ban meetings with over 50 attendees. City buses, which can hold over 50 passengers at capacity, remain functional and at “full, normal service levels,” according to a city website

Like Sampson, Katie McGrath is concerned that the city has not provided sufficient protection for the municipal employees who keep Madison running. McGrath worked as a bus driver through 2019, and is familiar with the risks, such as driving in extreme cold, that Metro Transit workers incur on the job. She says that extra sick pay and medical support for city employees “Is the thing to do, and now . . . I have pre-existing conditions but I risked leaving the house and going [to Metro Transit] today to talk about this.” 

While workers in Madison providing critical services have stayed on the job despite heightened concerns around the virus, state officials worry that “community spread,” in which cases of the virus cluster in communities where no one has traveled internationally or been in contact with others who have traveled, could develop in the counties of Milwaukee, Dane, and Fond du Lac. The current count of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 reached 46 in Wisconsin on Monday, and the first person diagnosed in Dane County has made a full recovery. 

But as cases mount and businesses shutter, workers will continue to bear the brunt of the crisis. By pushing for municipal, state, and federal accountability, they hope to enjoy the bare minimum of security and protection while incurring personal risk on the job.

The mayor’s office has not responded to a request for comment. We’ll update this piece if we hear back.

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