Essential workers demand voice in Harris County Commissioners Court over COVID-19

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A year and a half after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, local low-wage frontline workers are asking the Harris County Commissioners Court to create a council of essential workers.

The council would communicate the unique needs and experiences of essential workers in an official capacity to Harris County commissioners and help formulate policy recommendations.

Critical workers have been disproportionately exposed to the disease during the pandemic and are in industries that rely heavily on the workforce of immigrants and people of color, according to UT Health and the Center for Migration Studies.

“Workers have no say in the decision-making process to ensure the safety of workers and their families,” said Mirna Blanco, a longtime janitor, in Spanish.

Seven workers’ rights groups are pushing for the creation of the council. They represent guards, airport staff, construction and domestic workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic.

Laura Perez-Boston, organizing director of the Workers Defense Project, said during the pandemic she heard terrible stories from its members, most of whom work in the construction industry. In one incident, workers had to use porta pots that were not cleaned regularly.

“Forget the hand sanitizer, they don’t even have soap and water and sanitary conditions,” she said.

Perez-Boston said that while local officials may regularly hear from CEOs and industry leaders, they may not have as much direct contact with the experiences and struggles of workers.

She said that in the construction industry, for example, the common practice of hiring subcontractors to build homes and commercial properties means that executives in those areas may be blind to specific conditions on the job site.

“I think the point is that the expertise and day-to-day experience of workers is what should inform policy decisions rather than someone at the top of a job chain who might know the industry but not know. the daily details of what it looks like. “said Perez-Boston.

The board would also raise the voice of immigrant workers, who have specific needs that may be overshadowed or underreported, according to Elsa Caballero, Texas director of the Service Employees International Union.

“In the immigrant community, often (they) don’t even know how to ask for help or are afraid to ask for help or go to the doctor or get tested, because a lot of between them are still living in the shadows, worried about their immigration status, ”she said.

Caballero also said that if created, Harris County would be the first county in the state to create a council specifically for essential workers.

In a written statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo supported the idea.

“Exploring the creation of an Essential Workers Council is an important priority and the least we can do for workers after what they have endured over the past two years,” Hidalgo said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis has also expressed interest.

The creation of a workers’ council has not yet been placed on the court’s agenda.

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