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Labor Leaders Rally Behind Federalizing Medical Supply Chain

March 26, 2020, 7:52 PM

Labor leaders are lobbying for passage of a congressional bill that would force President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act and increase supplies of much-needed personal protective equipment for medical workers and other front-line employees responding to the novel coronavirus.

The 1950 law permits the president to launch a war-like effort to boost production of needed medical supplies and centralize distribution to the most in-need areas. The president has been reluctant to take such a step, saying companies are voluntarily stepping up.

Unions are backing the Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that would force the president to utilize his authority to federalize the manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies.

The plea reached new urgency as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced on a press call that health-care unions experienced their first death of a medical worker on the front lines of the country’s pandemic response. An American Federation of Teachers-affiliated nurse in New Jersey died after contracting Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The United Auto Workers announced Wednesday that three of its workers at three separate Fiat Chrysler plants have now died from the virus. More than 74,800 people in the U.S. have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 1,081 people in the country have died from the virus as of noon Thursday.

‘A Train Wreck’

At hospitals and health-care facilities across the country, workers are wearing trash bags and reusing masks due to supply shortages, according to American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders. AFSCME has more than 1.3 million members, including large numbers in the emergency service and health-care industries.

“This is a train wreck happening in slow motion,” Saunders said.

Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said the country needs a coordinated response to production. Her union represents about 2 million employees with a heavy concentration of health-care workers.

Henry said that utilizing the Defense Production Act would allow the production of no less than:

  • 500 million N-95 respirators, which offer the highest grade of protection against virus spread by filtering out about 95% of airborne particles
  • 200,000 medical ventilators
  • 20 million face shields
  • 500 million pairs of gloves
  • 20 million surgical gowns.

The text of the Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act hasn’t yet been released but was introduced in the Senate March 23.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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