FARGO — While North Dakota union leaders and some of the more than 20,000 union members were virtually gathered Tuesday, April 27, to honor the 26 people who died on the job last year, the main topic of conversation was the danger posed to workers from the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19, said host and union leader Nikki Bohn, is causing employees across the state "to join together to hold employers accountable and to protect workers."
As Gov. Doug Burgum announced reopening of some businesses on Friday, May 1, she said unions are asking him to follow eight "safety first" principles which they outlined in a letter to him this week.
The principles call for worker participation in decisions, health and safety standards, massive increases in personal protective gear and testing, more contact tracing and decisions based on sound science and worker safety.
AFL-CIO Field Director Andrew Bushaw said before the meeting that the unions haven't taken a position on whether people should go back to work Friday, adding that would be up to local unions and individual workers.
But the unions are suggesting that "any reopening should follow the framework that was in the letter we sent to the governor."
Bohn said they are also asking OSHA to put into place new infectious disease standards for workplaces.
As of last Friday, Bushaw said 118 COVID-19-related workers compensation claims had been filed in North Dakota under Burgum's executive order to provide coverage to essential workers. Of those, 48 were accepted for positive test results or for quarantining, 30 were denied and 40 were pending.
Some of the common reasons for denial, he said, were that the employee was outside the covered classes or the employer was still paying wages. He said they asked the governor's office for data on how many positive results were related to workplaces but said they had not yet received the information.
In addition to Bohn, five other union leaders described the situations they were facing — most noted a lack of protective gear. Some praised Burgum or the companies they were working for as they had stepped up and provided numerous safety measures.
Angie Grosz, a nurses' union leader, said the virus "caught us off guard" and that it changed "everything we were doing in health care."
She said some of the struggles they were still facing were a lack of N95 masks, staffing and not enough breaks while having to wear protective gear at all times.
Will Wilkinson, the steelworkers' union president of the Bobcat plant in Gwinner, wondered how many workers were getting sick on the job and said it would likely never be registered as a workplace death if they died.
He said the pandemic has made it "a lot more clear to so many of us that we have to fight tooth and nail to protect ourselves in the workplace."
Wilkinson said the unions are doing that job. Because of issues the steelworkers' union raised in Gwinner, they and the company have "come a long way" in improving safety for workers in Bobcat plants across the state.
Scott Nelson of the Teamsters union, who drives a bread delivery truck, praised his company.
He said it has done "everything possible" on the safety front, including providing hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, taking temperatures before shifts, cleaning trucks, providing hazard pay and providing sick leave.
Nelson worries about many workers, however, as in 2018 11% of suicides were work-related and the stress level among workers has to be climbing amid the pandemic, he said.
"It's now more important than ever to be a good listener," he said. "We have to watch out for each other."