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Told To Work, Employees Say They Aren't Given Proper Protections

Ben McKeown

Workers around the state say their employers aren't doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic.

That includes sanitation workers in Raleigh who are demanding that the city do more to protect them following the death of a colleague from COVID-19.

A local union representing the workers sent a list of demands to city staff on the same day Raleigh announced the death of Adrian Grubbs, who was a supervisor in the Raleigh Solid Waste Services Department. They said their hazard pay, which is a 5% increase on hourly wages, is not enough to account to the increased risks. They also want shifts to be staggered by having workers come in every other day or every other week. 

"We have to make sure that we are 100% to continue to serve the residents, and our safety is not really being taken into consideration," said Raleigh sanitation worker Mike Robinson.

Employees say they are still riding in trucks with up to four people in a small cab. A spokeswoman for the city said Raleigh plans to increase the staggering of shifts next week, and reduce the number of people in a truck to two on April 7. She defended the 5% increase in hourly pay, saying it was a proactive decision that only Raleigh and Durham have made.

More broadly, some fast food and retail sector workers across the Triangle announced a strike Friday, saying their employers are not putting enough value on their safety.

Hours after local stay-at-home orders went into effect, the workers went on strike, demanding increased safety protocols and payment for lost hours as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast-food employers have argued they are providing an essential service and must remain open, but workers say they have failed to protect them. 

"Frontline workers like us are getting hit the hardest right now," said Rita Blalock, a McDonald's cook in Raleigh. "McDonald's is calling itself an 'essential business' but isn't providing us with the essential protections we need to be safe at work."

Strikers gathered on a Zoom call Friday afternoon instead of getting together to protest in a group. Strikers were members of NC Raise Up, a chapter of the national Fight for $15 and a Union movement.

"For workers at corporations like McDonald's, the low wages, unpaid sick leave, and lack of healthcare coverage were inhumane before the COVID-19 pandemic," said Dr. Jess Friedman, a Chapel Hill physician who supports workers' decision to do a stay-home strike. "In this pandemic, disregard for worker safety compounds baseline inequities to put individual workers, their families, and the public they serve at unacceptably high risk. This strike is necessary to protect worker and public health."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
Will Michaels is WUNC's General Assignment Reporter and fill-in host for "Morning Edition"
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