Mass remembers workers who have died from COVID-19

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the “raw underside” of a culture that puts profits over people and strips the dignity from work, Father Clete Kiley said in his homily during an April 28 livestreamed Mass in honor of Workers’ Memorial Day.

The Mass was held in memory of union workers who have died over the past year, and, in a special way, those who died from COVID-19, said Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and former executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry.

“Today, as in former years, workers are confronted by a prevailing culture of profit over people — a culture that quantifies work and robs it of its humanity and inherent dignity — a culture that treats workers as cogs on a production line rather than the precious human beings they are,” Kiley said in his homily. “We cannot help but think of healthcare workers, and meat packers, and other workers who risk their lives and perhaps the lives of their families and co-workers. They have no protective gear to wear. There is no social distancing in their workplaces. And in spite of their pleas, there are employers who would still cut corners.”

The Mass, sponsored by the Catholic Labor Network, took place on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and could become an annual observance, according to Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network. The AFL-CIO has designated April 28 as Workers’ Memorial Day since 1989.

“This is something that really only came about because of the situation that we’re in,” Sinyai said, as people across the country have learned how to use videoconferencing technology.

Union leaders in cities across the world, including Chicago, also held virtual memorials on April 28.

Sinyai said union leaders and public health administrators who work in the area of occupational health and safety have called on OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard for worker safety during the pandemic, something it has not yet done.

“A lot of people are being infected at their work, whether they are health care providers or working in meatpacking plants or transit drivers or supermarket workers,” Sinyai said.

The church must speak up on their behalf of workers who are put at risk in their jobs, Sinyai said.

“This is a life issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have more than 4,000 workers a year killed by traumatic workplace injuries,” many of which are avoidable with the proper safety measures. “It really is putting profits over people.”

Kiley said the church has explicitly supported the rights of workers to organize, to be paid a living wage and to have safe workplaces since Pope Leo XIII promulgated “Rerum Novarum” in 1891.

“The church has a rich history of pastoral solicitude for and accompaniment of workers,” Kiley said in an email interview. “Our response to the plight of workers is never: ‘Sorry for your troubles; I’ll pray for you.’ We may indeed pray for workers, but for 129 years we have been teaching that the church has to stand in solidarity with workers to see they are treated as integral human beings.”

Especially now, the church must continue to advocate for workers, he said.

“In the eagerness to return to work, the church can be a voice insisting that workers have safe workplaces,” Kiley said. “They should not risk their lives for a paycheck. (We should) insist that employers guarantee safe workplaces, provide protective equipment, insist on social distancing measures.”

The church also has an obligation to help and speak for those who are out of work, especially those who cannot receive unemployment benefits, and those who do not have health insurance.

 “This is shocking in a country like ours that people have no health coverage in a pandemic,” Kiley said. “An odd thing occurring for some workers is that they are finding their unemployment assistance may actually be higher than their usual wages. That would seem to suggest ordinarily they are underpaid, or poorly paid, certainly not used to getting a ‘living wage,’ which the church teaches is a right of every worker.”


  • labor
  • coronavirus

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