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'Workers may be essential, but they are never expendable': Advocates say Iowa's essential workers are being put at risk during coronavirus pandemic

Essential employees are keeping Iowa up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates want the governor to take steps to make sure those workers stay safe.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Advocates called on Gov. Kim Reynolds Wednesday to take more aggressive steps to protect Iowa's working class, saying those workers have no choice but to go to work during the coronavirus pandemic. 

They are asking the governor to require all Iowa employers to do things like install physical barriers, require break times to be staggered and provide training on the proper use of PPE. 

Charlie Wishman, secretary treasurer with the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said he's heard concerns from workers across the board. 

He said that includes concerns from the private sector, the public sector and from government workers. 

"Workers that are considered essential take pride in their work, but they are nervous and they are anxious. They are willing to do their job if they are properly protected," Wishman said. "Remember, workers may be essential, but they are never expendable."

Maria Gonzalez, with Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown, said she took a survey asking workers two questions: 

  1. Is your employer taking steps to meet CDC and OSHA requirements? 
  2. How do you feel about going to work with the current situation? 

She said across the board, she heard that companies were taking steps to meet certain requirements, but people did have some concerns. 

"In a specific company, the comment was made that the temperatures were taken wrong and [the employee] felt like the thermometer being used was not accurate and it wasn't being cleaned between workers," Gonzalez said. "[Another employee] told me that they're told not to go in sick, however, they will only be paid if their results for the coronavirus test come back positive. So they're still having people that are going into work sick because they can't stay home, especially because they're living paycheck to paycheck."

Some guidance is already out there

The state of Iowa has put out guidance for businesses on how to protect employees from COVID-19. 

Find that guidance by clicking here. 

Reynolds said, with the recent outbreak at the Tyson plant in Louisa County, her team is also keeping in contact with packing plants across Iowa. 

"The Department of Public Health also has been in constant contact with a lot of these facilities to walk through what they are doing, if there are additional things that they need and how we can be proactive in getting in front of it," Reynolds said. "I've talked to several of them. I'll be calling the balance of them today just to get an assessment on what they're seeing, where they're at with some of the protective and preventative measures that they're putting in place and to talk about how we can continue to always try to be on the front end of that in identifying positive cases before it starts to significant and then really problematic for keeping the facility up and running and processing food which is so, so important."

RELATED: 2 employees of Tyson plant in southeastern Iowa at center of COVID-19 outbreak die

Reynolds said last week, IDPH put out some business guidance on when companies need to report potential outbreaks to the state. 

"They kind of aligned with what we ask schools to do during flu outbreaks, which is if you see over 10% of your population that's ill, then they are to contact the Department of Public Health so we can start doing an assessment and asking some of those questions," Reynolds said. 

Reynolds said Iowa has a responsibility to keep the world fed, so she believes employers understand the importance of keeping their employees healthy. 

"Especially in some of our food packaging and processing plants, this is an essential infrastructure," Reynolds said. "This is about feeding not only Iowans but the world. They know that they have a responsibility to take care of their employees. They, for the most part, are trying to be proactive."

RELATED: 'We don't want to just flip the light switch': Reynolds says plans to reopen the state are beginning

How to report alleged retaliation at work

Advocates said the state needs to do more to protect the workforce. They want companies to take the initiative to protect employees. 

If you feel that isn't happening, you can file an anonymous whistleblower complaint with Iowa OSHA by clicking here.

Note that you must file complaints within 30 days of the alleged retaliation. 

On April 8, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a statement reminding employers that it is illegal to retaliate against workers because they report unsafe and unhealthful working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Acts of retaliation can include terminations, demotions, denials of overtime or promotion, or reductions in pay or hours. 

Are you an employer wondering if you're complying with OSHA guidance relating to the COVID-19 pandemic? Click here to find out. 

RELATED: Here’s how Iowa is testing for COVID-19