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Public wants more protection for local ‘essential workers’

Public wants more protection for local ‘essential workers’


With the frequency of adverse weather events here seemingly on the increase and ‘essential workers’ being required to venture out during hazardous weather, some members of the public have questioned whether everything is being done to protect this category of worker.

With ‘essential workers’ identified as nurses, police officers, National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) staff and other agencies that have emergency response functions, some workers, particularly nurses, have voiced displeasure over not being provided with transportation to get to work when ‘Essential Workers only’ advisories are issued.

In a Facebook post, dated Tuesday, November 29, Facebook user Westford Joseph expressed his concern for the safety of essential workers, who must report to work as normal, even when NEMO advises other employees to remain at home.{{more}}

“Our Essential Workers are out there risking life and limb to ensure that the country has the essential services at all time. However, they are left to make it to and from work on their own,” highlighted Joseph.

“Perhaps transport is offered to a few, but nurses I know aren’t that fortunate. Can’t someone organize to get these people to and from work, and accommodations if getting home isn’t possible? They really need the assistance sometimes, since vans are the first ones to respond to a ‘no work day’ directive.”

Another Facebook user expressed a similar sentiment.

“Is wait alyo waiting til something bad happens to a healthcare worker before alyo put something in place to facilitate us getting to work in [this] weather?”

Responding to the matter, Luis de Shong, Permanent Secretary within the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment, said that although the Ministry makes efforts to provide transport in these times, it is not possible for all nurses to be accommodated in this way.

“Sometimes, it not very possible to provide for everybody who lives in some in-road and who can’t come out. For the most part, most persons get there on their own.”

De Shong also said that two weeks ago, when a previous trough system was affecting the island and an ‘essential workers only’ warning had been given out, the Ministry of Health had collaborated with NEMO to collect workers and take them back home.

“We do it all the time,” he insisted. “But the Ministry doesn’t have a fleet of vehicles sitting waiting for them, so that when they have to go out, they are picked up at their homes.

“As long as we can, we make every effort to lend support to get to work.”

However, SEARCHLIGHT spoke with two nurses who work at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital, and they both disagreed with what the Permanent Secretary said, accusing the Ministry of trying to “sugar-coat” the situation.

One nurse, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that regardless of the weather and whether public transport is running or not, nurses (as essential workers) are expected to make their own way to work – with no transport made available to them.

“And if you don’t come [to work], they have all manner of evil to say.”

She added: “There is no transport provided for any nurse. Even on the night of [Tropical Storm] Matthew, I had to get my own transportation; and I was told that there was no ambulance to carry me or anybody else home.”

The other nurse, who also opted for anonymity, said that during the passage of Tropical Storm Matthew, she was dressed and ready to report for duty, but could not get a lift to the hospital.

“I called the office and the sister spun me around so much,” she recalled. “I never got the ride and had to end up staying home.”

The nurse, who has been working at the hospital for four years, confided that many nurses are afraid to speak out against the matter, because they feel they will be penalized.

“I think all the heads need to come together and work on providing transportation for us. At least two buses – one for the Leeward side and one for Windward. We’ve been asking for it so long. Year go, year come, same thing. Nurses are not being treated well for the service we give!”

And this situation is not only causing persons to question the safety of essential workers, but also that of non-essential workers, who are expected to go to work, are on the way to work, or even already at work, when the advisory from NEMO to stay off the road is issued.

Last Tuesday, SEARCHLIGHT received a release sent by NEMO at 7:14 a.m., advising that the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) had been partially activated and that only essential workers should report for work that day.

SEARCHLIGHT reached out to Massy Supermarkets, who had announced via radio last Tuesday that their supermarkets were open. However, up to the time of print, no response was provided.

SEARCHLIGHT also contacted Greaves Super­market, as the company had also been open last Tuesday, when NEMO had issued its ‘essential workers only’ advisory.

A representative from the supermarket chain explained that by the time NEMO had issued its advisory, many of their employees had already reported for work – and it was not a case of management demanding that their workers come in despite the inclement weather.

Additionally, another manager, whose business starts operation at 7 am complained that insufficient notice is given by NEMO for businesses to shut down.

Acting director of NEMO Michelle Forbes said that her agency issues the advisories as soon as possible, but urged members of the public and the private business sector to remember that the decision to do so is not solely up to her.

“It is not one person that makes that decision… I would make a recommendation that we should do x, y or z, but then the final answer is not mine,” pointed out Forbes.

“The Prime Minister would consult with his colleagues, and then make that decision. So, sometimes there is a little delay because it is not one person who makes that decision.”

She also acknowledged the concerns regarding worker safety during adverse weather events.

“That is something I know we will be looking to address as we go forward, because we have had the complaints.”

The NEMO director also disclosed that she has received many calls from the private sector asking that their businesses be considered ‘essential’ too.

“Banks think that they should be considered essential services, too! So we’re having that kind of discussion.”

Forbes further divulged that she had been receiving complaints from employees who claimed to have had pay deducted from

their salaries because all business activity was shut down during the passage of Tropical Storm Matthew.

She was quick to point out that although NEMO issues an advisory, it is not mandatory for the private sector to adhere to it, unless it’s a storm or hurricane warning.

“Then, it’s a total shut-down,” she insisted.

“Generally, when it’s unsafe outside and we say only essential workers to return to work, we expect persons to… not put persons at risk by asking them to come into work.”