HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing July 27 to hear and address essential workers’s concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The definition of “essential worker” has expanded since the start of the pandemic. Beyond medical staff and first responders, the term now encompasses all frontline workers in life-sustaining industries, including truck drivers, food processors, grocery store employees and many others.
At the hearing, a dental insurance claims agent who identified as an essential worker told legislators she was deeply troubled by the policies at the company where she works, which she declined to identify.
“Our job has the ability to telework, and is refusing to let us continue to do so, regardless of the governor’s mandate,” said the dental insurance claims agent, Kelly Trent. “They’re not enforcing the mask policy. They’re not enforcing social distancing.”
Several lawmakers offered Trent advice and pledged to make sure her allegations would be sent to the governor.
“Demand action from the governor, because ultimately the buck stops there,” said State Rep. William Kortz (D-Allegheny).
As the pandemic drags on, many essential workers feel they have to choose between safety and their livelihood.
“We already work for low wages, and we each face a personal financial emergency if we have to make the unappealing decision to self quarantine and lose days or weeks of pay,” said Tom Smith, a home care worker in Montgomery County and member of United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania.
Despite the Pennsylvania state legislature allocating $50 million in grant funding for hazard pay, some workers said their employers still had not applied for the funds.
“We need our elected leaders to help us with those things that we need: PPE, hazard pay and extended unemployment benefits,” said Eve Carlton, a bicycle security officer in Philadelphia.
Legislators discussed the best strategies to help essential workers.
Legislation on a few measures has already begun, including HB 2391, which would require employers to offer paid emergency leave during the pandemic.
“If they’re going out and risking their lives, it’s a moral imperative that the government shows that it’s supporting them with the utmost risk it can take,” said Steve Catanese, president of Pennsylvania social services union SEIU Local 668.
Organizers of the hearing said it was important to hear the voices of essential workers in order to determine the best plan to facilitate people coming back to work.