Lawsuit Targets Feds’ Failure to Protect Frontline Workers From COVID-19

Labor, Environmental Groups Demand Action to Prevent More Deaths, Illness as Virus Spreads within White House
Thursday, October 8, 2020


WASHINGTON— CWA and other unions representing millions of frontline workers joined with environmental groups today to sue the federal government over its failure to provide adequate reusable respirators, N95 masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to these essential workers.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf should immediately use the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate PPE supply for frontline workers. The agencies failed to respond to an August petition from the groups that demanded emergency action. 

“It’s difficult for healthcare workers to get supplies on a daily basis because employers are conserving what they have, and having to ask or find PPE on our own is a horrible practice,” said Denise Abbott, an emergency room nurse in Buffalo, N.Y., and a member of CWA Local 1168. “Staff still have to reuse masks for the entire day unless they’re dirty, damp or damaged. PPE must be at the ready and used properly if we’re ever going to see an end to this crisis. With the flu season fast approaching, healthcare workers are again facing great risk from this administration's failure to act.”

“People are dying, and more people are going to die because the Trump administration has totally failed to protect Americans who have been on the job throughout the pandemic keeping our country running,” said CWA President Chris Shelton. “Workers are terrified about the possibility of having to face a potential third surge of this COVID-19 virus during flu season without having access to adequate protective equipment. Trump and his cronies need to focus on the real problems people are facing and use every tactic within their power to get PPE produced and distributed to workers.”

“President Trump and his Administration have mishandled the COVID-19 crisis from the very beginning,” said U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Penn.). “Their failure to fully utilize the Defense Production Act to produce vitally-needed PPE is a prime example of their unwillingness to do what is necessary to keep Americans safe and healthy. More than six months into this pandemic, frontline workers still do not have an adequate supply of PPE, like N-95 masks and gowns, to be protected on the job. Once again, President Trump has bowed at the altar of massive corporations and left our frontline workers behind.” 

“As Members of Congress, our top priority is our constituents’ health and well-being. Therefore, I applaud these courageous labor and environmental groups for standing up for all of the people this shameful President has let down by failing to use anything like the full powers of the Defense Production Act,” said Congressman Andy Levin (D-Mich.). “He should have used the DPA to organize systematic domestic production of all of the supplies we need to address the COVID-19 pandemic and protect frontline workers. Failure to act in this worst-case scenario has resulted in the unnecessary death of tens of thousands of our fellow Americans, pain and anguish for millions, and an economic collapse we will be climbing out of for many months to come.”

Today’s lawsuit comes as the United States reaches nearly 210,000 deaths and 7.5 million infections from the coronavirus and prepares for flu season. Plaintiffs include the nation’s largest labor groups — representing essential workers in healthcare, education, transportation and service sectors — including CWA, AFA-CWA, the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, SEIU, AFT, and ATU. The groups collectively represent more than 15 million workers in frontline industries that have suffered thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses from COVID-19.

The number of coronavirus infections has ballooned by 50% — or 2.5 million cases — since the groups filed their petition in August. Public health experts anticipate that COVID-19 cases will surge this fall and winter as people spend more time indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.

In March, the president issued a series of executive orders declaring a national emergency due to COVID-19 and delegating broad powers to Azar and Wolf under the Defense Production Act. The act is designed to ensure the provision of essential materials and goods during public health emergencies. The secretaries have failed to fully utilize their authority, leading to a shortage of PPE.

Steady growth in COVID-19 cases nationwide has led to a shortage of lifesaving equipment — including gloves, masks, gowns and sterilizing supplies — for millions of essential workers. This shortage has left CWA members without adequate respiratory protection throughout the pandemic in healthcare, telecommunications, airlines, public sector, manufacturing, retail, law enforcement, education, and broadcasting, media, and the news. People of color are more likely to be part of the essential workforce and at higher risk of death from the coronavirus.

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