Even though Hawaii has been able to keep COVID-19 cases low, the pandemic has turned much of life as we know it upside down, devastated our economy and made for an uncertain future. But through it all, public service workers have answered the call and kept our communities running. These workers — and their unions — will be just as essential as we look to start reopening the economy.
That’s because public service workers are essential front-line workers. They know firsthand how much Hawaii’s citizens depend on the services we deliver — and how important it is to everyone that they are delivered safely. Only with the collective power of their unions do they have a strong and effective voice to speak up for the communities they serve.
Recently, workers at the Hawaii Paroling Authority raised the alarm on dangerously crowded spaces where officers and parolees met. Acting together, workers there convinced the administration to implement social distancing procedures and make disinfecting solutions available to employees and members of the public who enter the buildings. This is a change that made it safer not just for the employees, but the clients and public they serve and the families they go home to — in other words, the entire community.
But more needs to be done. As Hawaii’s health experts are giving the green light to reopen businesses, we are seeing strong safety protocols put in place in retail stores and restaurants.
Yet at the state and local levels, we are finding that decisions about worker and public safety are being delegated down to department heads or line supervisors. Each department doing something different, or practically not doing anything at all is a recipe for chaos, confusion, and potentially more community spread.
HGEA/AFSCME Local 152, Hawaii’s largest public service union, and UPW/AFSCME Local 646, its sister union, are ready to work with the state for a seamless transition back to full service while ensuring employees and their clients will be operating in a safe environment.
But the state needs to set clear standards before bringing employees back to the workplace and reopening services to the public. Our experience over the last several months shows us that even one or two departments with ineffective procedures could put workers and our community at risk, or even reignite spread and set Hawaii back weeks or months. We need everyone to be on the same page to ensure that reopening occurs in a safe manner for everyone.
That means setting standards for employee and citizen safety, cleaning and sanitizing of workplaces, training all employees on health and safety protocols, providing sufficient personal protective equipment to employees, and establishing the means of implementing social distancing for both employees and the public.
It also means making sure that the services we all rely on aren’t just safe — but that they are there when we need them. Strong public services are essential to Hawaii’s recovery. Indeed, a recent report by the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center suggests that cutting government funding will hurt our communities and compound the economic hardships brought on by COVID-19. This is where the federal government comes in.
Right now Congress is debating over providing badly needed aid to state and local public services. This is not a partisan issue and there should be no debate; the last thing Hawaii needs is more cuts to essential public services like public safety, sanitation, water treatment and health care.
Members of both HGEA (Hawaii Government Employees Association) and UPW (United Public Workers) provide these services, and we have put in tens of hundreds of calls and emails to Congress to demand assistance to protect these services for the public. That is how we can safely get our economy moving again.
And that is the union difference.