American Federation of Teachers and UNITE HERE Call on Federal Government to Introduce Paid Sick Leave and Release Comprehensive Health, Safety and Economic Plan to Fight Coronavirus

Meghan Cohorst, UNITE HERE


[email protected]

Oriana Korin, AFT


[email protected]

WASHINGTON—In the wake of the continued spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., the American Federation of Teachers and UNITE HERE—which together represent educators, healthcare professionals, public employees, hotel, food service, airport, warehouse and casino workers across the country—are calling on the federal government to issue clear national guidance and take decisive action to support these workers and the people they care for, including, among other things, a national policy on paid sick time.

UNITE HERE President D. Taylor said:

“It is in our national interest that our leaders take decisive action to protect America’s workers and the general public today and into the future.

“Should some of our members get sick, most have affordable healthcare and adequate sick time, but we are concerned for our many members, friends, family and co-workers in industries who do not. Therefore, it is essential that Congress take decisive action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and that workers stay home when they are sick. We strongly believe that whatever monies Congress allocates toward virus response must take into account workers’ time and must include paid sick leave. Not everyone can afford to take time off when they’re sick. That’s why there is no better moment to enact national policy on paid sick time.

“UNITE HERE is the hospitality workers’ union, representing hundreds of thousands of people working in hotels, casinos, theme parks, airports, restaurants, university campuses and a multitude of other public locations across the United States and Canada. We are closely monitoring developments surrounding COVID-19 and are concerned for the safety and well-being of all workers.

“We are already seeing economic impacts of COVID-19 within our industry. Major conventions and business travel have been canceled and postponed coast to coast in North America, and workers are beginning to report reduced work hours or even layoffs. But as the hospitality workers’ union, our members will continue to show up to serve customers in the key travel and tourist industries that will remain open.

“We will be providing UNITE HERE members with information on COVID-19 and local contacts if they are concerned they are ill or believe they have come in contact with the coronavirus. UNITE HERE is also formulating proposals for what steps should be taken if workers become sick or their workplaces are closed temporarily, including job security measures and paid time off. This is essential for the safety of both workers and the customers they serve. We are reaching out to our employers in hopes that our union can collaborate on innovative and broad solutions that can save lives in our industry. These proposals will also include how our members can best protect themselves at work.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten said:

“Not surprisingly, we have been bombarded with questions from across our divisions: Nurses, hospital techs, teachers, custodial staff and others are asking for guidance on what equipment to use, how best to prevent the virus’s spread, when to close their facilities, and how best to support workers whose livelihoods may be affected.

“The emergency $8.3 billion from Congress is an important step toward increasing the availability and decreasing the cost of coronavirus tests, developing an affordable vaccine, and increasing aid to state and local health budgets, but the impacted people on the ground are asking for answers—based on science, not supplies—now. The president and vice president must understand: Coronavirus can’t be solved with a tweet or a sound bite.

“This week, we are sending letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking evidence-based guidance on the precautions, preparations, and protocols schools and hospitals should be taking both to prevent further cases, and to handle current diagnoses. In the absence of a coordinated national response, too many states and localities are being forced to develop their own.

But that’s not all. It’s good President Trump finally took notice of the virus when the Dow Jones dropped precipitously, but Main Street is more important right now than Wall Street. We need an economic plan that considers the well-being of communities across America, which includes a national program of paid sick leave in times of public health emergencies, quarantines, school and other potential workplace closures; more increases to unemployment insurance; and additional economic support for businesses that may be affected by a pandemic. For the majority of people in America who live paycheck to paycheck, a day without work means a day without pay, so it’s well past time for a national paid sick leave law to protect them, and the communities they serve.

“In times of crisis, people look to their government for protection and for answers—right now, the federal government is woefully unprepared, and unions and other public institutions are being forced to fill in the gaps. Fighting a public health emergency cannot be a political issue.”

The AFT has been coordinating a response since the virus’s initial outbreak overseas, outlining preparedness plans for K-12 schools; colleges and universities; hospitals and other healthcare facilities; and other public spaces; resourcing members with requests to make of their employers to ensure there are appropriate supplies, training and protocols in place in the event of virus spread and facility closures; and calling on the administration to invest additional resources and increase transparency so people on the frontlines have the information they need to help stop the spread of the disease, and care for affected communities.

The union is also offering an extensive collection of materials, including sample letters to elected officials; preparedness plans and fact sheets in several languages; guidelines for requests to employers; and extensive lesson plans, which are all housed on AFT’s website, and on the AFT’s free Share my Lesson platform. These resources are being updated regularly.