When we look back on this time of global pandemic, one of the things we will look at is who worked together to keep our communities safe and who foolishly and needlessly put people in harm’s way.
A few weeks ago, the New Mexico Restaurant Association (NMRA) hosted a virtual protest urging restaurants across the state to post pictures of their employees outside of their establishments with signs that read “Let Us Serve.” This action came after Governor Lujan Grisham announced reimposing the ban on indoor dining at eateries and breweries.
Workers, community members and local organizations, including OLÉ, joined in a counter-protest to show how important it is for workers to have paid sick leave provided at their workplace. Many shared their current stories of being a restaurant worker and how this protest was counterintuitive to helping the community, let alone the economy.
In June OLÉ put out a call for workers to share their stories. We were overwhelmed by the response. Stories poured in from workers across the state: “I’m scared everyday to go to work and be exposed. I worry about getting my dad sick,” wrote one worker. “I’m taking as many precautions as I can, but my company could care less if I was sick or not,” said another. “Workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and are only sent home with no measures toward disinfecting the store or testing the other workers that came in contact with the infected.” These stories are just a small slice of what workers are facing. How can we as a community call essential workers “heroes” and then expect them to risk their lives with no safety net? How can people like the NMRA demand the economy be opened up while fighting against paid sick leave and hazard pay for workers?
Rather than fighting the governor on this issue during a public health emergency, groups like the NMRA should be using their influence to pressure Congress to extend monthly benefits to workers and pressure the city council and mayor to help businesses stay closed without losing revenue. They should be supporting paid sick leave policies to help their workers. Essential workers are not expendable and deserve better than to have money, profits put before their lives.
Among businesses, restaurant workers have the highest positive test rate for COVID-19, not to mention the fact that businesses don’t have to disclose if one of their employees tests positive, which puts the public at risk. This is why we cannot let businesses reopen until they all have a paid sick policy in place so workers can take time off to care for themselves or a loved one.
Workers needed paid sick leave before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 has proven that we have always needed it. A study done three years ago by UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research showed that 64 percent of hospitality workers and over 100,000 workers did not have access to paid sick leave. In addition the Centers for Disease Control shows that 60 percent of US food workers show up to work sick because they don’t have paid sick leave or sick leave policy. Why are we allowing our most vulnerable workers to keep working under these conditions? These workers deserve so much more than a hashtag and pressure from a lobbying organization to just get back to work.
The NMRA has a history of opposing legislation, such as increased minimum wage and paid sick leave, that would allow many workers to feel safe and secure in their jobs. Whether it be against local city or county ordinances or bills trying to get passed during legislative session, the NMRA has never failed to show up to express their thoughts on how it would hurt businesses in some shape or form. Never once do we ever hear them speaking in support of the unacknowledged workers behind the scenes making sure businesses continue to thrive and have returning customers. Workers are the true backbone to a business, yet they are treated as expendable.
Most workers fear retaliation from their bosses—or even worse, losing their jobs—if they share their story publicly. This makes it extremely hard for them to speak up for themselves. They have no really fighting chance. This makes for an easy job for the NMRA when it comes to disenfranchising restaurant workers. This narrative needs to change. In order to have a healthy economy, we must have healthy workers. In order to have a stable economy, workers must have stability. In order to re-open businesses, workers need safety, protective equipment, paid sick leave, hazard pay and protection.
History will not look kindly on the people who refused to work together and keep each other safe in this time of global pandemic. So far, the NMRA has shown they are willing to be on the wrong side of history.
Andrea J. Serrano, Executive Director of OLÉ and Rebecca Glenn, Communications Director of OLÉ. OLÉ is a non-profit that uses grassroots organizing within the local community of working families in New Mexico. Our members and staff work together to strengthen our communities through social advocacy and economic reform, using issue-based campaigns and electoral engagement to ensure that working families are playing a critical role in shaping New Mexico’s future with a united voice.