Labor Dept. workers demand safe workplace and ‘more empathy’ amid pandemic

Call for leaving work schedule intact, respect for collective bargaining agreement

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Labor and Human Resources Department (DTRH by its Spanish initials) workers picketed in front of the agency’s headquarters in San Juan’s Hato Rey sector on Tuesday to demand a better workplace amid the COVID-19 pandemic and to denounce what they called the “arbitrary and unilateral actions” of DTRH Secretary Carlos Rivera Santiago against the workers’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Around 11:25 a.m, employees represented by the General Workers Union (UGT by its Spanish initials) gathered to form the picket line as they demanded that Rivera Santiago address their claims such as reestablishing the previous work schedule, from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m, which UGT Coordinating Secretary Mayra Rivera Cordero said has been established by the CBA for 20 years.

“We have held two meetings with the [Labor] Secretary and his staff, but nothing was accomplished as the only thing that came after this was receiving an administrative memo changing everyone’s incoming time to 8 a.m., 8:30 a.m., or even 9 a.m., affecting the family stability of these fellow workers,” Rivera Cordero said. “They need to speak with each and every worker to analyze each case and reach a more understanding decision.”

Other claims include allowing employees who are parents or legal guardians to work remotely to take care of their children as they have returned to online instruction after the Health Department ordered island schools shut down for two weeks amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Puerto Rico.

Rivera Cordero said the agency has lacked sensitivity and empathy toward workers “who don’t have anyone to take care of their children and are able to work from their homes as they have done so since the first day of the pandemic.”

“Now, they are being ordered to work in-person for at least two days,” she said. “It’s an insensitive move by the Labor secretary and the [Gov. Pedro] Pierluisi government.”

Meanwhile, workers raised concerns about the surge in positive coronavirus cases on the island and called for the agency to make needed improvements. They said current conditions do not allow for compliance with the COVID-19 safety and hygiene measures recommended by public health organizations.

When the STAR asked how long workers have been demanding such improvements, Rivera Cordero said “since the executive order issued last June, back when public servants were returning to in-person work.”

She also said the DTRH has not brought in a COVID-19 cleaning service every time a positive case is confirmed, as is recommended.

When asked how many cases have been confirmed at the agency, Rivera Cordero said “more than 30.”

“Workers are tired of the mistreatment, abuse and insults they receive day by day when they have been giving their all since the pandemic began,” Rivera Cordero added.

As for other demands being made on the picket line, they called on Rivera Santiago to allow Unemployment Insurance workers to have renewed access to the program, accessible sanitary services, and better pay.

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