Some NC essential workers feeling 'non-essential' when it comes to workplace safety

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- They gathered virtually on Zoom, Thursday night; most of them tired from a grueling day's work -- serving food at the restaurants, handling bags at the airport or driving those trucks through your neighborhood to make sure your trash and recyclables are picked up each week. They've been deemed essential workers through the pandemic. But tonight they told lawmakers, they're not being treated that way.

In the virtual town hall with over a dozen state lawmakers, candidates, and elected officials, front line workers like Sherita McCullers, a GoRaleigh bus driver testified. McCullers was in tears about the public apathy towards COVID-19. She spoke about passengers refusing to wear masks, "This stuff is real. I wish the people would take it seriously."


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Durham landscaper Keenan Harden testified that his company had no plan to get face coverings for workers in the field, "And it's a shame that it takes COVID-19 for you to hear from us or listen to us."

And Donielle Prophete, a Charlotte airport baggage handler and gate worker wondered why no one ever called her "essential" before COVID-19 hit, "We are the boots on the ground. It's only been since the impact of COVID-19 that we're even considered essential."



Thursday's town hall was a chance for them to give voice to their frustrations and desire to help set safety guidelines for their industries and a seat at the table in monitoring whether those procedures are being followed by the companies they work for.

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Laid off from her job in child care as the pandemic took hold, Sheree Allen moderated the discussion.


"(These demands are) basically unheard and unnoticed," Allen told ABC11 before the town hall began.
Allen now serves as a member of Raise Up NC, fighting for a $15 minimum wage and union rights in North Carolina.

Along with the added workplace protections, the workers want guarantees of paid sick leave and paid time off -- arguing you can't work from home if you can't work at home. The group is also asking for the creation of a state-level health and safety council for essential workers -- a panel at the General Assembly made up of front line workers along with government officials and employers.

"So that we can actually be the people sitting in there with the employers and the government to say what we need in our jobs to be safe," Allen explained.

The town was simply a chance for lawmakers and potential lawmakers to listen. There's no bill at the General Assembly or hearings about the proposed Essential Workers Health and Safety Council. Workers viewed tonight as a first step.

In the meantime, there is talk of some workers organizing their own "store-level" councils -- aimed at having a say in safety.
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