City councilors in Boston are making a push to hold employers accountable for workers who fall ill with the coronavirus, saying a lack of adequate protective gear has left them vulnerable.
A panel of union leaders will testify before the council Wednesday to discuss the conditions faced by front line workers, including health care and grocery store workers.
They are expected to argue that all essential workers who contract COVID-19 should be presumed to have been infected at work and receive workers' compensation benefits.
Ellen MacInnis, an emergency department nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and a board member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, will be among those giving testimony during a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m., which will be livestreamed.
"Hospitals delayed implementing the directive that all employees in the hospital should wear masks and were slow to segregate patients who were confirmed or suspected COVID cases," MacInnis said.
“Meanwhile, we started to hear from hospitals that if workers tested positive they likely acquired it somewhere else, somewhere in the community," she said. "This is absurd and it is insulting. The hospitals who, through their actions or inactions, put their workers at risk, are now trying to walk away from any responsibility.”
MacInnis argues that access to benefits has been difficult because employers don’t always recognize an employee may have gotten sick at work.
City councilors have also urged state lawmakers to hold employers accountable for the number of coronavirus positive workers due, in part, to the initial lack of personal protective equipment.
"It needs to be documented that they caught it at work for various benefits," Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn said. "But a lot of hospitals are not agreeing with that and saying they probably caught it in the community.”
Earlier this month, the city council sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to enact legislation that would require any healthcare worker who contracts the coronavirus to be presumed to have acquired the virus at work or in the course of work-related activities, called occupational presumption.
"The wording is critical," Flynn said. While there’s no way to prove they became sick in the hospital, Flynn argued that it's common sense.
“Nurses and doctors and other front line workers in the hospitals, they’re working 10, 12, 13, 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week," Flynn said. "It is critical that we make sure that we do recognize the tremendous work they’re doing and sacrifices and service they are making for our country.”
The hearing was scheduled based on an order issued City Councilors Liz Breadon and Flynn. It will be conducted by the Committee on Workforce Development, which is chaired by Councilor Julia Mejia.
The order references that more than 160 Boston hospital workers and more than 1,900 Massachusetts hospital workers have tested positive for COVID-19, citing the shortage of personal protective equipment provided by management and employers for putting essential workers "at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus in their employment settings.”