Under clear skies, PEF leaders gathered at the memorial outside PEF Headquarters to honor the 33 members who passed away since April 2020, reading aloud their names and observing a moment of silence.
“In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) went into effect, promising every worker the right to a safe job,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “Workers Memorial Day is a day to reflect and mourn those who have lost their lies at work in the past year – and to renew our fight for safer jobs in the future.
“Each year, thousands of workers are killed and millions more suffer injury or illness on the job,” he said. “Too many workers die from preventable hazards and many more get sick from exposure to toxic chemicals. Some are in danger due to short staffing at various levels. This must stop.”
Spence noted that unions have fought, and will continue to fight, for safety measures for all workers. In the first months of the pandemic, PEF established an emergency telecommuting agreement, gathered and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline workers, and paid for hotel rooms for members afraid to bring the virus home with them.
“PEF spent over $300,000 to secure PPE and housing for frontline workers,” Spence said. “We secured housing so members could avoid bringing home the virus to their loved ones. On a number of occasions, this happened. We had parole officers who brought home the virus and it took the lives of grandparents who were living with them.”
COVID-19 shed a stark light on the importance of workplace safety.
“The pandemic has shown that much still needs to be done,” Spence said. “Workplace exposures, where workers spend extended time around coworkers or the public, in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, have been a major source of COVID-19 exposure. This is preventable.
“Our members have gone above and beyond to keep New York running during this pandemic,” Spence said. “We must never forget their sacrifice and we must continue to press for safety in the workplace.”
PEF’s staff union, USW Local 9265, continues to work diligently to keep members safe and informed about their rights.
“Today we remember all the lives lost throughout this past year,” USW Treasurer Tamara Carney said. “Although this is a sad time, we must remember the importance of unions. During this pandemic, USW Local 9265 members continued to represent, support and assist PEF members throughout New York State. This past year, we have seen unity in action.”
Staff continues to meet with members, assist with questions on their contractual rights, provide PPE to essential workers, train union leaders, and interact with members regarding their available benefits.
PEF takes the health and safety of its staff very seriously, said PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie.
“PEF and I are very proud of the building improvements we’ve made here at PEF headquarters, especially in light of this pandemic, to ensure the health and safety of our staff.”
Issues with recent early retirement incentive legislation tied in with the theme of the day, as Spence noted faults with the bill, which would allow the state to cherry-pick who qualifies and which includes no provision requiring the state to fill the vacated positions.
“There are currently about 5,000 empty PEF jobs across the state,” Spence said. “PEF members are now doing jobs that used to be done by two or three people. This has been steadily strangling the state workforce and, while this proposed early retirement incentive legislation appears friendly on the surface, it is dangerous if enacted as written.
“There must be a provision that mandates each retirement position be backfilled,” he said. “This bill also allows certain entities to opt in, which means agencies and managers will pick and choose who is allowed to retire early. Some state employees might think they are eligible based on their years of service and then find out that their agency or manager is not participating.
“This proposal as currently written would exclude thousands of eligible members,” Spence said. “Essentially, giving more ‘zeroes’ to so many deserving heroes.”
By KATE MOSTACCIO