Union boss: US companies are shirking responsibility to workers

Corporate America is telling its workers they are “worth sacrificing” by refusing to offer wider access to paid sick leave and lobbying against liability if they fall ill with coronavirus, says the head of one of the largest US labour unions. 

Business leaders were “shirking their responsibilities” by not extending to more workers the right to stay home if they fall ill, said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about 2m nurses, cleaners, fast-food employees and airport workers.

Almost a quarter of the US workforce, or 33.6m people, had no access to paid sick leave in 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While 92 per cent of the highest-earning quarter of the US workforce could take paid time off if they fell sick, the figure was just 51 per cent for those in the lowest quarter, who earn $13.80 an hour or less. 

Three-quarters of SEIU’s members have been going to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, making them feel “sacrificial rather than essential,” Ms Henry told the Financial Times.

They were “apoplectic” to hear of companies planning a wider reopening of workplaces without stepping up their provisions of personal protective equipment, hazard pay and paid sick leave, she added. 

“Healthcare workers are concerned that, without PPE and training for the retail and restaurant workers who are going back, we’re rushing into another spike” in cases, she said. “It feels like governments and corporations feel that some lives in this nation are worth sacrificing.”

The SEIU president said it was adding “insult to injury” for business lobby groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce to urge Congress to limit companies’ potential liability from any lawsuits brought on behalf of employees who fall ill at work.

Washington’s largest industry groups argue that the fear of litigation costs will deter business owners from reopening and Republicans want to include such a measure in the next stimulus bill.

Democrats on Capitol Hill should not compromise on the subject, Ms Henry said. “Why in the world would we engage in a conversation about compromise now?”

The pandemic has brought heightened public scrutiny to the issue of which employees can take sick leave and which cannot, with workers at Amazon and Instacart among those protesting for wider access to the benefit. 

Amazon last month said it would provide up to two weeks of paid leave to its employees who fall ill, and other companies including Walmart and Kroger have brought in similar policies for the course of the Covid-19 crisis, but Ms Henry said she was concerned that many of these moves were temporary responses rather than structural changes.

She said, however, that unions felt they had achieved a shift in public opinion on paid sick leave, adding that the US was at “a moment of reckoning” on the relationship between workers and employers as a result.

“We have to choose: are we going to fix the pain and inequality or are we going to keep the status quo?” she said.

The SEIU, which has seen nurses and fast-food workers walk off the job in protest at a shortage of personal protective equipment or paid sick leave, is singling out fast-food chains, urging companies such as McDonald’s to insist that franchisees offer paid sick leave just as they mandate the details of the menus they serve. 

The coronavirus hit the US less than six months after 181 chief executives of the countries’ largest companies signed a Business Roundtable pledge to treat employees and other stakeholders as equals of their shareholders.

“This is a perfect moment for that statement to become reality,” Ms Henry said: “Corporations have to come to the table and take responsibility and pay their fair share.”

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