“Power concedes nothing without a demand”: some much-needed progress on PPE?

collage of MDU workers in PPE

Less than a week after OPD workers announced the formation of the Maryland Defenders Union, OPD management may have stepped up to provide one type of PPE, but questions and concerns remain.

On Friday, August 7, individual members of the Maryland Defenders Union (MDU) were told by supervisors that the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) had responded to worker demands for personal protective equipment (“PPE”) to protect them as they work on the front lines of the punitive legal system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This news came within days of the MDU’s launch meeting, at which over 200 OPD employees shared concerns about their working conditions, chief among them workplace safety in the time of COVID-19. But the majority of MDU members have heard nothing about an organization-wide PPE policy, highlighting the issues of communication and clarity that have hampered the ability of OPD workers to keep themselves and their clients safe in these unprecedented times.

We urge OPD management to confirm the existence and applicability of this policy as soon as possible. OPD’s frontline workers need PPE regardless of where they work, and a piecemeal policy will not suffice. Workers should not have to rely on rumors and word-of-mouth to determine whether or not a PPE policy exists and whether or not it applies to them.

If, as these individual MDU members were told, OPD will be providing face shields to all OPD workers, clients, and witnesses, then we welcome management’s response to the concerns expressed by MDU members at the launch meeting.

But the response is long-overdue: since March, OPD workers have been instructed to report to offices and courthouses with little to no guidance on how to protect themselves, their clients, and their families. And we don’t just need face shields – we need masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other equipment necessary to combat and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Workers should not have to pay out-of-pocket costs for protective equipment they use while at work, and for that reason, the provision of face shields would represent one much-needed step forward. 

When we speak together, our collective voice can bring about change. But bringing about this policy, if it exists, is not the final step in our struggle. Face shields may protect us from some of the immediate effects of COVID-19, but not from the looming budget cuts, furloughs, and staff shortages proposed by the Hogan administration. They will not protect us from the judiciary’s brazen and hazardous approach to our clients’ lives and our own lives. And they will not protect us from the issues within our agency that predate COVID-19, such as meager salaries for core staff, pay inequity, and poor employee retention.

OPD workers organized the MDU to fight for ourselves in both the short- and long-term, and we will not stop after one victory. On Monday, August 10 we are taking to the streets of Baltimore with other AFSCME members to fight back against Governor Hogan’s unnecessary, excessive cuts to our agency’s budget, and we will keep showing up until we win!

What will you do? We ask that you join us. Sign a card, voice your support, and take your place among your colleagues raising our voices, fighting injustice.

Title quote attributed to Frederick Douglass in his 1857 speech, “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress”.