February 18, 2021

At Banking Hearing, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union Agrees: It's Time to Protect Essential Workers and Raise the Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour

Senator Warren once again calls for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, including priority access to vaccines

Video of Hearing Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, DC - In a Senate Banking Committee hearing today, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned John Costa, the International President of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) -- the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the U.S. and Canada. In response to her questions, Mr. Costa agreed that we need to protect essential workers, improve their opportunities, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

Senator Warren once again called for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, a proposal she has been promoting with Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that outlines the full suite of rights, protections, and benefits that essential workers deserve -- including hazard pay, paid leave, and health care protections. She announced today that she and Congressman Khanna are expanding the Essential Workers Bill of Rights to include priority access to vaccines. 

U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs
Thursday, February 18, 2021

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It feels so good to be able to call you that. 

I wanted to talk today about essential workers. Essential workers are just that-essential.  They are people who are on the front lines. They're still showing up for work even as the death toll in the United States approaches a half a million people. These are the people who are keeping our economy, our health care system, our education system going. Without them it would all grind to a halt.  

But this morning, millions of those essential workers woke up worried about contracting COVID-19 on the job. For nearly a year, the federal government has treated these workers as disposable.

These essential workers are disproportionately Black and Brown. More than five million essential workers don't have legal documentation. And many are hardly making enough money to get by.

The failure - in fact the outright refusal - of the past administration to protect essential workers during this pandemic has been truly shameful. And that's going to change.

So Mr. Costa, you represent transit workers-school bus drivers, subway workers, rail operators. The Biden administration has now committed to issuing enforceable health and safety standards for all workplaces. Can you just say a word about why that is so important for the workers that you represent?

Mr. John Costa: Thank you, Senator. Thank you very much. Like I said in my statement, we pushed and pushed to get federal guidelines and never -- the last administration didn't get anything. As a matter of fact, it was watered down. The Biden administration came in quickly. They reacted. The mask mandate for our drivers was huge. We appreciate that. Question about funding. We now are going to need the funding on how to bring that in without using our members as the mask police. As I spoke about the assaults that happened and bad enough that we have the members that are being killed over a $2 fare in the past. And I'm sure you've read about this. And I know you know about this. But now, I don't need many of our members beat up or killed over the debate or politics that they have on the bus, on the face masks. 

So, the administration's reaction is greatly appreciated. We appreciate that. But now our focus is how it's going to be applied. How are we going to enforce it. And who's going to do the enforcing. So, once again, the money will be needed, I believe, for those agencies to be helpful to institute this to save lives -- not only for my members but the riding public. 

You know, if a driver is infected. There's a hundred people on a bus or fifty people or a hundred, you know, on a bus. They, you know, could be infected also. 

Senator Warren: Right. That's very important. And thank you. You know, health and safety standards are powerfully important. They're just one piece of the puzzle, though. I've proposed an Essential Workers Bill of Rights outlining a full suite of rights, protections, and benefits that I believe all essential workers deserve. 

And that includes things like hazard pay, paid leave, health care protections. Representative Ro Khanna and I are expanding it now to include priority access to vaccines. 

But we also know that unions improve workplace health and safety and that union workers are more likely to have paid sick leave and employer-provided health insurance. Right now, only about one in every eight essential workers is currently covered by a union contract, so the Essential Workers Bill of Rights also includes protecting collective bargaining agreements and the right of workers to join unions. 

Now, there is another piece to this as well. We need to ensure that America's workers - including those who have battled this deadly virus every day in their workplaces - are not earning poverty wages.

Mr. Costa, there are some who say that now is not the right time to increase the minimum wage. I'd like to hear from you. Would raising the minimum wage help promote an equitable recovery from this crisis that workers are facing?

Mr. Costa: Once again, Senator, thank you. And thank you for supporting everything you just said as far as heros pay and-- yes. It would. We've been fighting for a minimum wage. I think every time we spread money around, the economy gets better. Right? So, this is America, right? Why aren't we taking care of our working families? To me, yes, the $15 minimum wage would help the economy, would help the livelihoods of many families, minorities. We supported it 100%. We supported it from the beginning. And as matter of fact, would support it and even if you want to give more. 

Senator Warren: Thank you, and thank you, Mr. Chairman. You know, it is time to deliver for workers. And that means doing everything we can - including using the budget reconciliation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

I appreciate you being here, Mr. Costa. Thanks for having this hearing, Mr. Chairman.