FARGO — Area union leaders and advocacy organizations banded together Wednesday, April 29, during an online press conference to voice their concerns and make recommendations to the state on how to better support working families.
The program, named “We Stand Together,” highlighted recommendations that included worker safety, an eviction moratorium to last through the coronavirus pandemic and then 90 days more and paid family and medical leave.
Proposals also included streamlining and modernizing unemployment, improving access to food and health care coverage, and ensuring higher education protection.
Safety and housing
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, took the lead on voicing concerns related to public employees.
“State employees are real heroes,” Archuleta said. “As we go through this pandemic, their services are going to be more necessary than ever. During the last economic downturn, 700 positions were lost in North Dakota universities, and that had a real impact on the quality of these institutions.”
Archuleta said educators and public servants need to be paid in full for the remainder of the school year.
Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, admonished the current unemployment benefits system and said it's a difficult process that takes too long. He also criticized federal and state leadership and said few companies have had guidance on protecting their workers.
“There has been no guidance for safety procedures at large manufacturing plants,” Larson said. “The state, the federal government has been really lacking about it, and they don’t seem concerned about it, and that is something that has to change.”
Most of the organizing to demand companies protect their employees has come from labor unions, and “real change happens only when people band together with their voices,” Larson said.
Cody Schuler, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition to End Homelessness, said Gov. Doug Burgum has made it clear he doesn't support issuing a moratorium on residential evictions. Schuler, however, promised to continue fighting for better tenant protections during the pandemic.
Burgum has said during daily press conferences that he hopes landlords and tenants will work together to find solutions.
“In talking about a moratorium on evictions, over the past several weeks people have been doing the smart and the right thing and that’s staying home. But what if your housing status is uncertain? Many people are one paycheck away from homelessness,” Schuler said.
Area homeless shelters are full, and will not be able to provide much additional assistance, he said. Schuler added that homelessness prevention services were able to assist 25% of rent and utility requests per month before the pandemic, but now he is seeing a dramatic rise in first-time callers looking for help.
He recommended that Burgum follow other states, counties and cities across America in implementing a temporary eviction moratorium.
Health care and food
“We’re trying to find our way through a disaster,” said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. “And what happens in a pandemic is you start to see your weaknesses or the things you didn’t plan well for.”
Up to about 20,000 families, farmers, ranchers and other workers have lost their jobs and health care packages due to the pandemic in North Dakota, and their economic future is uncertain, Watne said.
“We need a moratorium on farm disclosures, for a period of time. Try to find a way to get farmers through this time," Watne said.
Recommendations include extra paid sick leave to care for loved ones and free testing and treatment for COVID-19 patients.
As hog farms prepare for mass slaughter because of contractual issues, Karen Ehrens, a registered dietitian and food security advocate, said she hopes to find ways to bring much-needed products, including meat, directly to families, homeless shelters and food pantries. The Great Plains Food Bank has seen a 30% increase in demand for food in urban areas, and a 50% increase in demand in rural areas, she said.
“We need to keep people healthy with adequate amounts of food and that will help workers and the economy,” she said.
Whispers of food shortages with chicken and pork may come to fruition in the near future, Watne said, which will be a direct result of distribution processes, not necessarily a lack of product.
“We’ve allowed nearly 85% of our processing facility into the hands of four companies, one from China and one from Brazil," he said. "What’s happening is that we’ve gotten rid of all the mom and pop-type processing that could allow food into restaurants.”
Before shortages worsen, Watne said North Dakota needs to “free up a state inspection system.”
Ehrens suggested state agencies should fully utilize federal nutrition programs and support food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens.