Six weeks ago, construction sites across the state went silent. Now, the day that Pennsylvania’s construction industry has been waiting for is near. May 1, when construction resumes, is also International Workers’ Day. At a time when workers’ safety could not be more critical, this coincidence could not be more meaningful.
The COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history as one of the most trying times on a national and global scale. However, it is in times like this of unprecedented suffering when workers’ rights advance. Similar to Labor Day that we celebrate in September, International Workers’ Day honors workers who fought for the rights we have today, like weekends and paid overtime, and recognizes the contributions of all workers. While there has been no shortage of gratitude for workers, that gratitude must be met with protection. For that reason, health and safety rights have understandably drawn close attention during this pandemic.
The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) puts the well-being of our members above everything else. It has been difficult to see thousands of our 25,000 LIUNA members across Pennsylvania out of work, and difficult to ask them to return to work in a crisis. Through LIUNA’s partnership with the Philadelphia Building Trades, we shared ideas with Gov. Tom Wolf on how to safely move forward. I commend him for incorporating many of those ideas in a balanced solution that allows our members to work again with increased safety precautions before the phased reopening of the state starts next week.
As of May 1, construction sites must enforce new safety measures like sanitizing tools and social distancing while taking some specific measures depending on the type of project. LIUNA projects mainly fall under commercial or public construction. Public projects must receive additional approval from the appropriate state or local oversight entity to resume work. Commercial construction tends to have more open space for distancing, but the total number of workers on-site is limited to the square footage. A “Pandemic Safety Officer” will be on every site — and LIUNA adds an extra layer of protection by making frequent job site visits on its own to monitor safety and investigate any potential concerns.
Though current policies emphasize physical protection, financial protection cannot be overlooked. Pennsylvania is the state with the second-highest number of unemployment claims, over 180,000 of those claims in construction. The construction industry contributed over $34 billion to Pennsylvania’s GDP in 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. For an industry so important to our state and local economies, workers must receive the full economic benefit of their efforts by earning a good wage. Public officials can ensure that happens by joining unions like LIUNA in strongly supporting the enforcement of wage and hour laws.
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Another measure that will contribute to both the physical and financial protection of construction workers is the Pennsylvania Construction Industry Employee Verification Act. This law requires all construction contractors working in the state to screen their new hires through the web-based E-Verify system to make sure they are eligible to work in this country. Employers hire undocumented workers for cheap labor and make them work under just as cheap conditions. Employers who know they have access to an undocumented workforce willing to work for less only push wages lower and eliminate job opportunities for eligible workers.
Out of the darkness of COVID-19 has come some light: a renewed appreciation for workers and a dedication to their safety, unlike anything many of us have seen in our lifetime. Virus or no virus, this is how workers deserve to be treated. Through the evolution of Workers’ International Day, from first fighting for an eight-hour workday to now fighting for protections against COVID-19, the day has always been about improving the workplace for today and tomorrow’s workforce. Philadelphia’s laborers are optimistic about rebuilding Pennsylvania in the way that we know best: building.
Ryan N. Boyer is the business manager of the Philadelphia and Vicinity Laborers’ District Council, an affiliate of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).