A coalition of labor and environmental justice groups joined forces Tuesday on behalf of millions of essential workers who face shortages of personal protective equipment five months into the coronavirus pandemic, demanding the Trump administration take emergency action to provide the life-saving supplies.
The legal petition comes months after President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to compel businesses to manufacture and distribute masks, gloves, gowns, and other PPE. As of last month, only 19 companies had received contracts to produce the equipment, including 600 million N95 respirators and face masks—an amount public health experts say is not nearly enough to keep up with need.
“In light of their role as the country’s engines of survival, frontline workers deserve to be safeguarded with all required levels of PPE and other critical materials,” reads the petition. “However, just the opposite has manifested. The Trump administration has failed to take leadership over the necessary process of producing and delivering PPE and other critical materials to frontline workers… At base, the administration, through failure of proper action, has created a grave nationwide PPE shortage for essential workers—which continues to deepen with the opening of state economies and infection surges.”
“This exploitation of workers is the same type of abuse the administration and corporations inflict on the environment. We’ll continue to fight these injustices on all fronts.”
—Jean Su, CBD
The petition, directed at Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf—both of whom were given broad powers to ensure the manufacture of equipment in March—was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Nurses United (NNU), and other labor unions.
The groups represent 15 million workers who are on the frontlines of the crisis, including thousands of people who have died of Covid-19 and hundreds of thousands who have been infected.
“Workers aren’t being honored or protected, they’re being sacrificed,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU. “All of us want the same things: health, safety, security, and a better future for our children. That’s why working people are demanding the Trump administration take immediate, emergency action to provide sufficient PPE and to protect all workers.”
Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program and lead author of the petition, denounced Trump for abandoning frontline workers who have saved lives, ensured people can access groceries and medications, and served the public throughout the crisis.
“We wrote this petition to stand in solidarity with workers to stop this tragic, preventable loss of life,” said Su. “This exploitation of workers is the same type of abuse the administration and corporations inflict on the environment. We’ll continue to fight these injustices on all fronts.”
Experts say the little effort the administration has put into overseeing the production of supplies began far too late to make a difference in the country’s ability to confront the pandemic. The administration received warnings about the crisis in the first days of 2020; after the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in the U.S. in January, government scientist Rick Bright called on HHS officials to ramp up production of medical supplies, only to be ignored and later demoted.
Although companies eventually began producing the equipment, public health experts say only half of the supplies ordered will be delivered by the end of the year. Shortages are expected to persist in the fall and winter as the country faces flu season, and even through 2022.
“I am very concerned about long-term PPE shortages for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, told The Guardian Monday. “We have not seen evidence of a long-term strategic plan for the manufacture, acquisition and distribution of PPE.”
The California Hospital Association also said late last month that a shortage of supplies is expected for at least two years, harming healthcare workers’ ability to safely treat Covid-19 as well as other conditions.
NNU demanded the president issue a more broad production order and again invoke the DPA to support healthcare workers, nearly 900 of whom have died of Covid-19.
“At a time when the skills of registered nurses, other healthcare workers, and essential workers are most needed, it is unconscionable that they are being treated as if their lives are worth less than others with this utter disregard for their safety,” said NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo. “Nurses are willing to be at the bedside caring for Covid-19 patients; their employers and their government should be willing to protect them with the PPE they need to do their jobs safely.”
“We need the Trump administration to immediately invoke the Defense Production Act and order the mass production and distribution of PPE,” she continued.