April 29, 2020
By Ashley Boone, Labor Standards Enforcement Division
There are countless jobs that cannot be performed in the safety and comfort of one’s home. A substantial number of workers unable able to work from home are in health care, hospitality, grocery, and construction industries. Many of these jobs are disproportionately performed by low-wage workers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. As we consider where, how, and under what conditions to attempt returning to “normal”, gradually or otherwise, we must also remember that the physical health and well-being of workers and communities of color will be disproportionately affected. The use of a tool to assess the impact on racial equity is extremely critical as we puzzle through these decisions that will affect the hardest-hit communities far into the future.
There are many essential low wage workers who must work through this pandemic outside of their homes and in direct contact with other people because of the nature of their work. A disproportionate number of these workers are black, brown or Indigenous. In 2017-2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that less than one in five Black workers and about one in six Hispanic workers can work from home. Questions that must be asked and answered include: What steps are employers taking to protect their employees from being infected? Are there required industry-specific measures that must be taken to ensure workers are safety? What emotional support should be provided to employees who are dealing with the stress of working during a public health emergency?
Governor Walz’s April 23rd Emergency Executive Order 20-40 relies on OSHA, MN Dept of Health, and CDC guidelines and requires employers to create and implement a plan to keep workers, businesses and the public safe. Provisions in the Order require that equipment should be sanitized, and employees should receive necessary protective equipment based on the workplace and type of business operation. Workers also must be screened for symptoms of COVID-19. Sick or symptomatic workers should be sent home immediately. Workers who are sick or symptomatic before reporting to work should stay home. Fortunately, the City of Minneapolis already has an ordinance in place in which the purpose is to protect workers and the public. The City’s sick and safe time ordinance plays an important role in keeping us safe, now more than ever.
The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights is hearing from many low wage workers voicing concerns about workplace safety. While we recognize there are some workplaces that took early steps to protect their employee’s health and safety, many will grapple with what it means to keep workers safe. For example, the Seward Community Co-op is one of the businesses that out of necessity acted early train their staff to provide customer service while implementing social distancing, wearing masks, and limiting the number of shoppers in the store at one time. Additionally, Seward Co-op began the practice of having their employees check their temperatures before coming to work so that employees who are sick or symptomatic do not come to work. The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights has also noticed there are many stores placing markings on the ground to help shoppers practice social distancing. Some businesses have installed sneeze guards to create a physical protective barrier between the customer and employee.
Working at home is a privilege that many of people in our city do not have. Many low-wage workers and BIPOC workers often do not feel heard or valued by the rest of our community. While there are a lot of general expressions of gratitude for those on the front lines of this public health crisis, it will take overt action to make sure gratitude translates into protection and safety for the most vulnerable among us.