Two thousand and twenty was a year like no other. As districts struggled to navigate a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, laid bare was a fundamental disconnect between how employees identify workplace hazards, and how they work with their employers to address the problems. NYSUT’s biennial Health & Safety Conference, held virtually in May, taught members the basics – how to identify and document concerns, how to elevate them and, ultimately, how to hold employers accountable.
At the Friday opening session, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta thanked members for making time in their schedules to attend. “Working people have always acted collectively to create change,” said Pallotta. “I appreciate all you do to improve health and safety within your workplaces.”
Ron Gross, NYSUT second vice president, welcomed participants and encouraged them to use the power of their union to advocate for workplace safety. Gross’ office oversees health and safety issues for the statewide union. “Your work here today means something, what you’re doing is vital and important to improving workplace conditions,” said Gross. “And this work is done not just for ourselves, it’s done on behalf of everyone, to improve the working and living conditions of all the people we serve and our society at large.”
Eric Ramirez, chair of NYSUT’s Health & Safety Advisory Committee, noted that in the midst of the pandemic, employee voices are needed now more than ever. “We must continue the dialogue and momentum of union activism when it comes to health and safety,” said Ramirez, United College Employees — Fashion Institute of Technology’s vice president for health and safety. “We are the boots on the ground, we know where issues lie and what needs to be addressed in our workplaces.”
Ilyana Frias, United Federation of Teachers, received NYSUT’s 2021 Unsung Hero award, given to members who identify, publicize and resolve or significantly improve health and safety issues. Frias, a UFT D75 borough advocate, brought the horrendous environmental conditions at one school to the attention of UFT’s Health and Safety Department. The NYC Department of Education later sent teams of contractors to fix the problems over a weekend. At another student residential site, Frias sounded the alarm about a lack of PPE and poor disinfection protocols. Both UFT president Michael Mulgrew and AFT president Randi Weingarten traveled to the school to highlight the issues.
“[I’ve had] the opportunity to build partnerships and amazing relationships with students, educators and families,” said Frias of her union work. “To be compassionate and act with empathy is what drives my work and keeps me continuously finding ways to be a better advocate.”
A slate of weekend workshops covered issues ranging from collecting and keeping track of data, to forming a health and safety committee, to addressing specific workplace hazards like infectious diseases and indoor air quality. NYSUT’s new Health & Safety Assistance program was introduced in a Saturday session. The program allows members to digitally fill out a NYSUT-created, “request for assistance” form to report workplace health and safety concerns in their buildings. Completed forms are then submitted to union reps, health and safety committee chairs and local leaders to compile a database of workplace hazards. “We want to create a network of activists to find out what’s really happening in schools,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT’s assistant in health and safety and health care. “Members need to track issues and get themselves to the table with administrators so they can advocate for solutions.”
Having a workplace health and safety committee, and a designated chairperson, is key. Although schools are mandated to have them, many locals either don’t have health and safety committees or have ones that rarely meet. “With the uptick in interest since the pandemic began, we’re encouraging all locals to have an active health and safety committee,” said Foley.
Other workshops addressed the importance of maintaining proper indoor air quality in the age of COVID-19, reflected on the past pandemic year, discussed how to reach resolution between labor and management in health and safety meetings and taught participants how to use collective bargaining to advocate for workplace health and safety improvements.