Workers Memorial Day: Nobody knows how many workers COVID-19 has killed
Faces of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees who died of COVID-19 are displayed at Moynihan Train Hall, Jan. 28, 2021, in Manhattan. | John Minchillo / AP

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (PAI)—Just before Halloween last year, 23 workers at the Midwest Warehouse and Distribution system plant in the Chicago suburb of Naperville got sick. Days before, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they were close together in the company lunchroom. On Oct. 26, they started feeling symptoms and told supervisors.

Midwest had anti-coronavirus procedures, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found it didn’t implement them. It didn’t order quarantines, it didn’t enforce physical distancing, and it didn’t warn the workers.

The workers’ complaints led the DuPage County Health Department to close the warehouse on Nov. 4 and order it cleaned and disinfected. It was too late. All had tested positive. That day, one of them died.

The worker’s death and the company’s stance led OSHA Naperville Area Director Jake Scott to cite Midwest on April 22 for a serious job safety and health violation, with a $12,288 fine, the maximum possible. OSHA did not disclose the worker’s name and a check of newspaper obits for that month failed to find it.

“This case is a tragic reminder of the importance of fully implementing coronavirus prevention measures that include wearing face coverings, physically distancing, and quarantining workers who exhibit symptoms to protect other workers from coronavirus exposure,” Scott said.

Which is not the point. The point is that workers, unions, and now the Biden administration’s OSHA want to force firms to protect their workers via an emergency temporary OSHA standard against COVID-19.

The idea is to prevent more illnesses and deaths, which the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health documented in its new report, Deadly Risks, Costly Failures. It discussed the report and the issue at an April 27 Zoom press conference to mark Workers Memorial Day, April 28—now a memorial week.

OSHA sent its standard to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review the day before, to union cheers. National COSH, National Nurses United, and workers and unions will push to get it out of OMB and on the books fast so OSHA can enforce it.

Nobody knows how many frontline workers have died. OSHA doesn’t track national COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. And the point, both workers and unions say, is that an infected worker can infect their families and communities, too. That’s what happened in meat processing plants in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa.

So one way unions, National COSH, and workers will push the cause is to emphasize the urgency by telling workers’ stories about individual COVID-19 illnesses and deaths.

Celia Yap-Banago, a registered nurse at the HCA hospital in Kansas City who was nearing the 40th anniversary of her service there, died in 2020 after bosses locked away N95 anti-virus masks last March 21, her NNU colleague Pescaline Muhindra said on the Zoom call.

“The next day, a patient was transferred to the telemetry unit,” where Yap-Banago worked. The patient had the virus. “She contracted it,” Muhindra said of her friend and colleague, who died. “Management was rationing masks. It still does.”

And one of the profiles in the report is of Sedika Buljic, 58, a worker at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. That’s the plant where, despite pressure from the county health department and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents its employees, bosses refused to protect workers. Buljic died of the virus last April 18.

The bosses also set up a betting pool on how many workers would sicken and how many would die—the answers: 1,000 sick and six dead, including Buljic. Tyson ended up firing seven managers once the gambling ring that used workers’ lives as chips was exposed.

The proposed emergency temporary standard would give OSHA a stronger cudgel against firms like Midwest and Tyson or hospitals like HCA, a big and profitable chain.

“As RNs, as long as we’re exposed like that, we’re at risk. But OSHA didn’t cite our employer because Centers for Disease Control guidelines” for protecting workers from the virus “are weak,” said Muhindra. They’re also voluntary; an OSHA standard would make following such rules mandatory.

Unions are taking that same stance and with that same urgency. So is the National Council. Both are sponsoring events all over the country, with a list on the council’s website. OMB’s “review must be swift,” says Council Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez, not delayed by corporate foes. “Many workers see the ripple effects within their families.”

“We are grateful to the Biden administration for taking this long-delayed step toward finally promulgating an emergency temporary OSHA standard in the face of this deadly pandemic that has already killed nearly 600,000 people in America, the most in the world,” said NNU co-President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN.

“We strongly urge the Biden administration to ensure there are no further delays,” added NNU co-President Deborah Burger, RN. It’s seeking a quick meeting with Biden OMB officials on the emergency standard. The union wants it on the books by May 12, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and International Nurses Day.

The numbers show the need. As of April 23, Burger said, the virus has killed at least 3,758 U.S. health care workers, including 387 RNs. As of 5 pm on April 27, it’s killed 573,201 people nationally. That’s just short of the 2020 Census count for Wyoming (577,719).

> Iowa Tyson pork plant bosses bet on how many workers coronavirus would kill

> Documents detail political, corporate interference in anti-virus fight

> Agency probe reveals OSHA hamstrung vs. virus



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.