On the Front Line: How the IAFF Supports Its Essential Workers
During the COVID-19 outbreak, essential workers in a number of industries have disproportionately borne the responsibility of caring for the rest of society. Many of these workers perform essential tasks in close contact with others, including both those showing symptoms of coronavirus and those who are asymptomatic.
Unions back workers in a number of these industries. Union efforts, however, have also extended beyond their own memberships to include outreach, education and support for all essential workers.
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) represents essential workers whose skills are needed in critical situations — including situations in which someone needs help due to COVID-19.
Although the IAFF’s office staff currently work from home, the union has nevertheless gathered resources and continues to fight on behalf of its member firefighters and, consequently, the communities those firefighters serve. IAFF locals are also heavily involved in their own communities.
Keeping Track of Coronavirus Cases
The IAFF’s Member Tracking Tool helps IAFF members stay informed about coronavirus outbreaks by tracking which IAFF members have been exposed to the virus and their locations. The tool also serves as a digital memorial to IAFF members who have died of COVID-19.
“I think it’s very good for us to see the numbers, especially where you’ve seen the map, you can see the hotspots around the country,” says Kevin Gostkowski, president of IAFF Local 330 in Akron, Ohio.
Gostkowski noted surprise that not all fire departments had reported data for inclusion in the Member Tracking Tool. In some places, however, IAFF locals have had to fight for access to that information.
In April 2020, for example, members of IAFF Local 1664 had to challenge county officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, for access to COVID-19 exposure statistics. When the county government refused to provide the data to firefighters, Local 1664 “file[d] a Prohibited Practice Charge/Unfair Labor Practice with the Labor Relations Administrator,” says local president Jeffrey Buddle.
The resulting information revealed that 60 percent of Montgomery County’s firefighters had been exposed to COVID-19 while transporting patients. While sobering, this information has also helped the union protect the health of its members.
Continued tracking of COVID-19 infections among IAFF members and other first responders is essential. IAFF continues to fight for testing for firefighters, as well as access to PPE and emergency funding.
“Fire fighters need more — and faster — testing so they can stay on the job and know they are not bringing the virus into the fire house, or back to their homes. They need priority access to PPE,” says Tim Burn, IAFF press secretary.
The IAFF has also teamed up with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to lobby Congress to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or the HEROES Act. Among other things, the HEROES Act would provide assistance to state and local governments and grant money to firefighting units, as well as resources for the families of first responders who have died as a result of exposure to COVID-19.
IAFF General Secretary-Treasurer Ed “Edzo” Kelly recently posted “Our Brothers and Sisters who truly are, the #TipOfTheSpear in this fight against the global pandemic, COVID-19. Although video conferencing and working from home has become the “New Normal”, our Executive Board and Local Leaders remain vigilant. Same as our members, past and present who have always answered the bell, many times having to adapt, improvise and overcome whatever challenges we face.”
Fighting to Protect Their Communities
State and local government budgets have been consumed by coronavirus response. To manage budget shortfalls, many local governments have cut spending and furloughed or fired their workers.
In Broward County, Florida, the city of Miramar furloughed all of its full-time city employees for eight hours a week, resulting in a 20-percent pay cut for workers, including police officers and firefighters. The announcement raised concerns from IAFF Local 280, as well as the Broward County Police Benevolent Association.
“The fact that we are going to have less people on a scene, not only is that a reduction to the safety of the citizens, but to us as well,” says James Estep, a member of Local 280.
“For rescue calls and emergency calls, you’re going to have your staff stretched extremely, extremely thin. This could cause a great deal of overtime which ultimately could cost the city more,” says Rob Skirvin, president of the Broward County PBA.
Miramar is one of many municipalities seeking to balance budgetary concerns with the need for strong public safety. IAFF members often find themselves caught in the middle, fighting for their members and community alike.
Thinking Outside the Box: The Breadth of IAFF Support
IAFF members have been involved in securing PPE, paid leave and other necessary support for union firefighters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the union has not limited its efforts to these issues.
Instead, the IAFF has compiled a number of resources for members and the public to rely upon in many areas of life.
Some of these resources focus on the additional tasks firefighters and first responders are called upon to perform during the outbreak. For example, on May 22, the IAFF released guidance for EMTs, paramedics and other first responders who have been called upon to work in skilled nursing facilities to test residents for the novel coronavirus. The guidance helps inform workers about the types of training they’ll need to do the job correctly, as well as the appropriate PPE to use and what to do if exposure occurs.
Other offerings from the IAFF focus on staying safe and healthy. In early May 2020, the IAFF released a collection of resources on staying fit while shelter-in-place or quarantine orders were in effect. These included information on at-home workouts, as well as links to a database of at-home exercises and workouts created by Performance Redefined.
These workouts provide a way for IAFF members to maintain the physical fitness required for their duties. They also offer a way for families and other interested parties to stay healthy or take up a new hobby as they shelter in place to protect themselves and their communities from the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 takes a mental and emotional toll on people as well as a physical one. In recognition of this hardship, one of the first resources IAFF made available to its members and the public was a guide to managing coronavirus anxiety. The guide recommends that people take charge of the things they can control, such as common-sense precautions like handwashing, as well as maintaining a daily physical activity habit and engaging in “daily activities that bring you a sense of joy or purpose.”
What Unions Can Do
As unions support their members, those members in turn are reaching out to their communities.
In May 2020, for example, members of IAFF Local 851 in Lane County, Oregon, donated $2,500 to Florence Food Share and $17,500 to Food for Lane County, two local food banks.
The IAFF local, which represents both firefighters and paramedics, launched its food drive fundraiser after realizing how badly some families in the community needed help obtaining basic nutrition during the pandemic, says Mike Caven, president of Local 851.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic is an emergency of a different kind,” Caven says. Yet it, too, is an emergency for which the union’s firefighters were ready to respond.
The pandemic has generated unprecedented need in every segment of society, from small local communities to federal policymaking. Because of their own skill at focusing on both specific and broad issues, unions have a unique ability to meet a wide range of needs for workers and communities.
Efforts to obtain assistance for essential workers at the federal level continue to need assistance from unions and union members. Similar state-level movements also benefit from the backing of unions.
Union members who don’t find themselves on the front lines can also work to help fellow union members who do, or they can focus their efforts on other community needs. They can also support the efforts of non-union workers, like gig economy workers, who have nevertheless begun to engage in collective action.
As essential workers strive to provide the basic services required to protect the rest of the population, unions in turn strive to support these workers. These collective efforts aim to help both workers and their communities weather the pandemic.
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