Unions, advocates push for more protections in Maryland for essential workers

Maryland labor unions are making a push for essential workers to get greater protections and hazard pay not only during the coronavirus pandemic, but also in future health emergencies.

They’re drafting a bill called the “Essential Workers Protection Act” that would guarantee those workers enhanced pay, safe working conditions, free testing, sick and bereavement leave, and the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.


“Essential workers are willing to show up for us and we have to show up for them,” said Ricarra Jones of the 1199 SEIU union, which represents more than 10,000 health workers in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

While other groups, including progressive and environmental organizations, are supporting the effort, it was several unions that organized a videoconference Tuesday to launch the campaign. Several participants spoke with union logos behind them as their video backgrounds.


Organizers have not yet released a draft of the legislation, which would be introduced during the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly. It’s not known yet how much the protections and enhanced pay would cost employers.

As the pandemic spread into Maryland earlier this year, state lawmakers rushed to pass legislation that included some protections, including that workers can’t be fired if they’re required to quarantine. And an existing state law requires companies to give a certain amount of sick leave to all workers. But advocates say as the pandemic has stretched on, it’s clear that workers who can’t do their jobs from home need more support.

One of the chief sponsors will be Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs a committee that reviews bills that deal with workers’ rights. Davis’ sponsorship means the bill is likely to get serious consideration in his committee.

Davis said essential workers, from hospital employees to grocery cashiers, have had praise heaped upon them during the pandemic.

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“The acknowledgment is nice, but we need to do more than just acknowledge and give thanks,” he said. “We need to give protections.”

Sen. Malcolm Augustine, also a Prince George’s County Democrat, will sponsor the bill in the Senate. He called it “critical, critical legislation.”

“Providing essential services should not put these families in danger,” he said.

To underscore the need for more worker protections, several workers — all of them union members — spoke about what they’ve faced on the job.


Jennifer Chase, a Metrobus operator, said she had just learned that she’d been exposed to someone at work who tested positive for the coronavirus. She needed to arrange for testing and then find and pay for a hotel room to stay in, out of concern she might expose an older relative at home.

“We put our life on the line day-in and day-out with exposure to this deadly virus,” she said.

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene its annual 90-day session Jan. 13. The session will be partly conducted in person in Annapolis, with public hearings held online via video.