As COVID Spikes, NJ Steps Up to Protect All Workers

Dec 5, 2020

Every year the FDNY provides time off for all of its members to get a department provided flu shot in groupings based on assignment. A similar approach will be taken with the COVID vaccine later this month. Like the flu shot, it will not be mandatory.
Credit FDNY

Vaccines in the wings but basic public health measures need to endure.

Reporter Bob Hennelly speaks with News Director Doug Doyle

DOYLE: This week the nation faced the worst week since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last winter. Here in New Jersey, the trend lines are also up significantly, but not to the catastrophic levels we saw in the first wave. For our essential workforce the risks of contracting the deadly virus remain a constant source of anxiety.With us now is WBGO's Bob Hennelly, who as a reporter with the Chief Leader, has been covering the challenges that essential workers have faced during pandemic. Thanks for joining us Bob.

HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.

DOYLE: So, we are ten months into this once in a century public health crisis. Before we get into some of the latest efforts to keep our first responders, healthcare personnel, and essential workers safe can, you give us a sense of the toll the pandemic has taken on this workforce so far?

HENNELLY: This is really one of the big challenges to get a sense of the scale of what is happening. We know, thanks to the Guardian newspaper and Kaiser Health News, that at least 1,300 health care professionals in the United States have perished as a consequence of their occupational exposure while treating patients with COVID. We then have to go and hunt and peck around the country. We know in New York City we have lost 300 municipal civil servants. We know in New Jersey dozens have perished. We know the CWA in New Jersey has lost dozens, particularly among those members that interface with the public. This is really one of the important things about contact tracing is getting a handle on the impact of the pandemic on our essential workers so we can right size the programs to help them because we are realizing the lingering consequences here with as many as one in five of those individuals dealing with COVID having some long term health consequences.

DOYLE: This week you reported on new measures being taken in New Jersey designed to help protect essential workers from contracting the virus that are believed to be the most robust in the nation. Could you give us some details on that?

Workers at UNITEX, a hospital laundry service company in Perth Amboy, went on a two day strike last month over stalled contract talks and concerns over COVID workplace protections for essential workers provided for under Gov. Murphy's Nov. 5th executive order.
Credit LDFS Workers United/SEIU

HENNELLY: Well this is actually something New Jersey has done can be proud of. Gov. Murphy sat down with SEIU, Service Employees International Union, the CWA, immigrant worker groups like Make the Road New Jersey. All of them shared with his the challenges essential workers are having and they helped design an executive order that was signed by the Governor this Nov. 5 which extends to both public and private sector workers which extends basic protections in terms of their workplace. It puts the responsibility on both public and private employers to provide basics things they have to like masks as workers require and to ensure that “high touch” areas are frequently cleaned and one of the most important things here is the Department of Labor has set up a hotline for individual employees who find themselves In a circumstance where and employer or manager is not doing the wight thing with regards to COVID they can call 609-292-0767. It all boils down to creating this unique circumstance where both public and private sector workers have some recourse if they are working out in the environment, whether it be in a warehouse or a retail establishment, if they feel their employer/manager is not following the law and the COVID guidance that’s been offered by Gov. Murphy, the Department of Health and the Department of Labor they have some recourse and they can lodge a complaint anonymously and most importantly their employer can’t take retribution on them for doing it. That represents a breakthrough. And I might say, that is something that’s necessary because the advocates, labor unions and even elected officials have pointed out they have to do this at the state level becaue OSHA, which is the federal organization responsible for this has not gotten its act together and has been missing in action which requires the state step up in a big way and lucky for us New Jersey is doing so.

DOYLE: The big word this week has been vaccines with both Governor Cuomo and Governor Murphy have announced that they are preparing to distribute a limited number of doses of the vaccines that have received emergency approvals from the FDA later this month. What will that mean for essential workers?

HENNELLY: Well, it is going to mean initially that a very small fraction will have this opportunity. Right now the CDC this past week was meeting and set up with their subcommittee that sets up the criteria of who gets it first and it looks like people in congregant facilities that are most at risk, along with the health care workers that interface with them and who care for them that will be first in line. We do know from my reporting that in New York City the FDNY has communicated to all members of the service, both firefighters and EMTs, that by he end of that sometime month a certain as yet undetermined number will have the opportunity to take the vaccine. What we also do know is that particularly the Pfizer’s vaccine requires it has to be phased in and administered over two sessions and there has been some initial discussions about potential side effects. So what this is going to mean is we are not going to see is a roll out on a scale that’s going to mean we are going to bend the curve on this for many months, which means that we are going to have to keep these protocols in place that so many people are tired of when it comes to being mindful to do masking in public, frequently washing our hands and adhering to all those protocols we have come to rely on.

DOYLE: Bob Hennelly stay safe and thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.