NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On April 25, over a hundred workers representing labor organizations and unions across New Jersey joined with local supporters in New Brunswick for the Annual Worker’s Memorial March, carrying coffin-shaped signs made of cardboard, with the names of men and women who lost their lives last year.

This year’s march, organized by New Labor, a local labor advocacy group, recognized around 250 workers, almost all of whom died during the pandemic, from causes related to exposure to COVID-19 in their workplaces. 

The marchers were mostly Latino immigrant workers who are employed in restaurants, warehouses, domestic work and day labor, but it also included members of NJ21, a caucus of public school employees, and uniformed members of United Steelworkers’ District Four, a trade union headed by Dell Vitale, who oversees 50,000 workers from Maine to Delaware working across industries like pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and printing, in addition to those that use steel.

“We’re here to support New Labor for labor rights and protections. Too many employers don’t care for workers safety and we’re here to stand up for that. We need strong OSHA regulations and strong enforcement from the government. As New Labor puts it [in Spanish], ‘Ni una los muertos’ – not one more death,” said Vitale.

Carlos Castaneda, an activist with Movimiento Cosecha, speaks to the crowd before the march on April 25.

Other groups that marched were grassroots labor and immigrant advocacy organizations from across the state, including Movimiento Cosecha, Laundry Workers Center, Wind of the Spirit, Unidad Latina en Accion NJ, Casa Freehold and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

New Labor, who has made the “Worker Memorial Day” march into an annual tradition, works with low wage and mostly Latino workers in three New Jersey cities — restaurant and warehouse workers in New Brunswick, construction workers in Newark, and domestic workers in Lakewood.

In addition to protesting last year’s deaths, the march was also a call to lawmakers to improve worker’s rights and protections in the workplace both locally and nationally. 

 “There’s no regulation of the workplace in New Jersey other than Executive Order 192 issued by Governor Murphy,’ said Lou Kimmel, the director of New Labor.

The order, signed in November of last year, eight months after Governor Phil Murphy declared a public health emergency in the state, requires employers to follow COVID-19 safety protocols for workers who are physically present at the workplace.

“The order has some baseline protections in for workers but it’s not enough because it does not have fully robust enforcement processes that have involved workers in its creation,” Kimmel said, “so workers are still falling through the cracks.”

New Labor said in a press release that the 250 deaths last year is also approximately three times more than the number of workplace-related fatalities recorded in New Jersey for each of the three years prior. This ties in with official data for New Jersey released annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency, showing 69 workplace-related deaths in 2017, 84 in 2018 and 74 in 2019.

The impact of the pandemic on essential workers across the state has been particularly devastating because they were required to be physically present in their places of employment, making them vulnerable to illness. Numbers released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), show COVID-19 is likely the highest single cause of death in New Jersey workplaces in 2020, compared to previous years.

These numbers released by OSHA do not include self-employed workers or the large numbers of the state’s undocumented, immigrant workers who are often paid hourly wages by their employers with no access to health benefits and little awareness of their rights.

According to a study released in April 2020, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, low wage workers, are disproportionately Black and Latino and were at particularly high risk , for health and financial complications. Deaths that are not directly traceable to workplace exposure are likely to go unreported in these situations, said Kimmel, suggesting that the number of workplace fatalities caused by the virus are much higher.

Some of the workers at the rally carried posters calling on Mondi Group, a global manufacturer of paper and packaging, to address violations of their rights.

Eighteen workers who were employed by Mondi at factories in Leonia and Ridgewood, allege that the company fired them in retaliation to demands that the company sanitize and disinfect spaces in accordance with COVID-19 protocols after two workers died from the virus. Rosanna Aran, a labor organizer who represents them, said that all the terminated workers averaged nearly 22 years working at the company.

OSHA, the government agency that is responsible for overseeing workplace safety, still hasn’t issued a standard on COVID-19 — despite the state and the nation being nearly one and half years into the pandemic. Guidelines were posted on its website on January 29 of this year, but these guidelines do not create legal obligations for employers in the way a standard or a regulation would.

A spokesperson for the department of labor at the OSHA headquarters did not mention these guidelines when asked for comment on why it has not provided any emergency guidance or standards on workplace safety during COVID-19. 

The memorial march travels past a new mural on Handy Street.

Instead, it said, in an emailed statement, that it sent draft standards to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review on April 26, one day after the New Labor march, more than a year after the pandemic hit the nation, and the same day that New Brunswick Today happened to contact them

The OSHA spokesperson said that the standards were drafted in response to an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety issued by President Biden, directing the Department of Labor to consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19 were necessary to keep workers safe from the hazard created by the virus.  

“Workers don’t have the right to refuse hazardous work without retaliation. People are going to keep working because they have no other options. That’s also why people need the right to expanded earned paid leave and sick days, because they use up their five earned sick days, and even if the employer lets them go out, they don’t get paid for it,” said Kimmel.

Gloria Solano is a worker who lost her husband to the virus last year, at the age of 54. A construction worker, he had lived in the United States for nearly 20 years but had never been able to find a job with benefits or health insurance.

The family has two teenage sons. Solano’s husband had a work permit issued from an application he made to the US government petitioning for political asylum; the permit eventually expired.

After a run-in with the police, he was arrested by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in September 2017 and detained in Essex County Detention Center for six months. Solano says he came out of the detention center a changed man, and that he suffered from paranoia and needed mental help.

Solano said he did not sleep for five days, she said, after he got COVID. He refused to go the hospital out of fear, and died at home on April 28, 2020.

Reporter at New Brunswick Today

Mary Ann Koruth writes about immigration and culture in New Jersey.

Mary Ann Koruth writes about immigration and culture in New Jersey.