State mental health workers to testify before Department of Labor hearing on future airborne infectious diseases.

Mar 14, 2024

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WHAT: N.C. Department of Labor Airborne Infectious Disease public hearing
WHO: Members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150
WHEN: Tuesday, January 23 at 1:00 pm
WHERE: or call +1 (312) 584-2401, 20086796#
On Tuesday, January 23, the N.C. Department of Labor plans to hold a public hearing to take input on a new proposed rule for future Airborne Infectious Diseases, similar to COVID-19.
Sekia Royall, President, Dr. David Bartholemew (Broughton Hospital, NC DHHS), and Charles Owens (healthcare technician at Cherry Hospital), all members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union UE Local 150, plan to testify before the hearing.

According to DHHS’s data, over 29,000 people in NC died due to COVID-19 (from March 2020 to April 2023).  Having better protections in place immediately and having required protections at work could have prevented some of those deaths.

A copy of President Royall’s testimony is below:
“Our members were on the front lines of this pandemic. I can tell you personally the names of essential workers that passed away after contracting this disease on the job, like Adrian Grubbs, a 38 year old sanitation worker in Raleigh that was the second person in the entire state to succumb to the COVID 19 in 2020. We know that Black and Latino workers were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.  We must do a better job protecting vulnerable workers from future pandemics.
“It is critical that we adopt this rule to protect frontline workers. Many of us in state hospitals and residential facilities treat some of our state’s most vulnerable people, with extremely compromised immune systems, who are major vectors of transmitting airborne infectious diseases. We had to rally and protest and hold press conferences for several weeks and months before our employer responded and finally provided masks.
“The fact that there had been no prior plan in place meant that management at our employer had to spend valuable time, many weeks, to debate how to respond, nevertheless, trying to allocate the appropriate resources and communicate to staff what to expect. This caused the staff a HUGE amount of distress. Many of the most qualified staff in all our facilities quit the job because they did not feel respected by their employer, who did not care enough to have a plan in place to keep them alive. Unfortunately, this trauma repeated itself with each new wave of the disease.
“It is the government and NC Department of Labor’s responsibility to help ensure that all employers live up to the General Duty Clause of OSHA. In this moment, this requires a basic plan on how to respond to airborne infectious diseases, as currently outlined in the new proposed rule.
“We were all caught off guard by COVID-19.  With no plan to curb exposure, workplace exposures became a major driver of the pandemic, and outbreaks posed a constant threat to workers across industries. This rule would protect workers and the public by minimizing the spread of infection in the workplace. This rule is a common sense measure. Adopting it means employers, businesses, and workplaces will be more prepared the next time there is a public health emergency like COVID-19.
“This is true whether you work in a street maintenance department for a city, whether you teach in a classroom, whether you are a housekeeper at a university dorm or whether you work in a healthcare facility, we need these rules to be standard across the board to keep all of us safe. Having a well-defined plan ahead of time will also prevent unnecessary illness because we will be able to put measures in place immediately to protect each other and mitigate the spread of any future airborne illness.

“Having a well-defined plan ahead of time will lessen the impact on businesses because they won’t have to spend time scrambling to figure out how to adapt. In 2023 the NC Department of Health and Human Services had to spend $87 Million on contract traveler nursing staff because there were such huge vacancies. This is a major drag on the quality of care we provide our patients. Employers having common sense plan, like this proposed rule, in place can help retain and attract valuable staff to serve our residents with the care they deserve. We urge you to adopt this rule.”