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Unions denounce lack of safety measures for business reopenings

By on May 12, 2020

Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

Call for employee participation in drawing up Covid-19 protocols

SAN JUAN – Labor union leaders criticized Monday the protocols established by the Puerto Rico government for employers to reopen their businesses amid the Covid-19 epidemic, and called for all employees to be tested before returning to work.

They also demanded that employers provide personal protection equipment and safer conditions to help prevent infection.

“Work cannot become a death sentence for workers,” Ángel Pinto, president of the Solidarity Program – Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union (ProSol Utier by its Spanish acronym) chapter at the Puerto Rico Highways & Transportation Authority, said in a press release.

“If health and safety protocols are not discussed with employees before the restart of work, work areas are not disinfected, nor is necessary protection equipment provided, we cannot return to work,” added Ángel Rodríguez, president of the University Professors Association (APPU by its Spanish acronym).

General Workers Union President Gerson Guzmán and Puerto Rico Teachers Federation President Mercedes Martínez said the government should require employers to conduct Covid-19 testing.

The union leaders also objected to the central government allowing employers to certify their own Covid-19 safety protocols and compliance with measures to help ensure people’s safety.

Businesses seeking to reopen under Gov. Wanda Vázquez’s May 1 executive order, which relaxed restrictions on certain industries, must submit to the Puerto Rico Occupational Safety & Health Administration (PR-OSHA) their “self-certified” plans to guarantee the safety of employees and customers.

Only 72% certified

Judith Cruz Concepción, acting director of PR-OSHA’s consulting program, recently said that as of May 8, some 5,000 businesses, including establishments such as hardware stores, banks, pharmaceutical plants and accounting firms that had reopened, submitted their documents. Still, she said only 1,120 of them were issued a certification to operate.

Cruz said that 3,600 businesses were notified that they had either submitted incomplete documentation or had not handed in guidelines to avoid contagion at their workplaces.

“We demand the establishment of health and safety committees in all work centers with the participation of workers, including the participation of the exclusive [union] representatives and bona fide organizations, where they exist,” said Liza M. Fournier, president of the National Union of Educators and Education Workers (Unete by its Spanish acronym).

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI for its Spanish initials) reported last week that between March 14 and April 29 PR-OSHA received 680 complaints against employers related to the Covid-19 crisis. The CPI reported that worker complaints had been filed against hospitals and health centers, as well as pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers across Puerto Rico.

Complaints were also filed against Banco Popular de Puerto Rico and Walmart, the largest bank and retailer on the island, respectively, according to the CPI report, which added that Iván Báez, Walmart’s director of public and government relations, as well as Popular Inc. President and CEO Ignacio Álvarez are members of the Economic Task Force that advises the governor.

Employees interviewed by CPI said their employers were removing workers infected with Covid-19 only when they showed a fever. Medical reports state that between 40 percent and 80 percent of people infected with Covid-19 may be asymptomatic.

CPI said many of the employees interviewed were fearful of contracting Covid-19 and losing their jobs for reporting the situation to the establishments’ human resources offices.

The president of the Puerto Rico Workers Central Federation, Antonio Cabán, urged workers to demand they be tested for the novel coronavirus and to file complaints with PR-OSHA for noncompliance of employee protection regulations.

“They should report to [PR-OSHA] and the Labor Department any threat to health that exists in work centers,” said the union leader, whose organization is affiliated to the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union. “The lives of our people cannot be at the expense of the bosses’ excessive desire for profit.”

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