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For Some Workers Returning To GE Appliances, 'It Feels Like A Hostage Situation'

It was a rally tailor-made for the age of social distancing.

On Saturday, a steady stream of cars driven by employees and supporters flowed through Appliance Park, flashers on, constantly honking and bearing signs asking GE Appliances and its parent company, Haier, to put their health over its wealth. Workers estimated nearly 2,000 people turned out.

While some large manufacturers around Louisville have closed up shop as coronavirus continues to spread, employees at GE Appliances headed were back at work Monday. For a week, the company had closed Appliance Park to make adjustments like adding Plexiglass dividers between work stations and to deep clean. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 there.

In a statement, Julie Wood from GE Appliances said employees’ health is a priority. She said those in the marketing and finance departments are able to work from home, though she could not say how many employees that includes.

But working from home is not an option for those on the manufacturing floors, who now harbor twin worries of safety and job security. That includes people like Alexandria, who works on refrigerator parts and asked not to use her last name in order to protect her job.

"It feels like a hostage situation, like we either come to work and probably get this or stay home and lose our jobs," she said after Saturday's rally.

Alexandria returned to work Monday morning. She was among the first to have her temperature checked before being allowed in. Despite some changes at the facility, she does not believe her work space, which was already cramped, is any safer now.

"They're doing all these things because they're so desperate to make their numbers," she said. "They're not even thinking, like, you know, how that's gonna affect people. It's terrifying, you know."

She questioned how essential she and her coworkers are, considering the amount of goods she said are already stocked in the warehouse. Plus, she said she doesn't think buying a fridge, dishwasher or laundry machines is a priority for most people, many of whom are out of work, these days.

Federal data from last week showed a huge spike in unemployment claims as businesses large and small struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The union that represents 3,800 Appliance Park workers, IUE-CWA Local 83761, is asking for certain benefits for its members, including hazard pay, full compensation in the case of needing to quarantine and temporary lack of work status for those who must stay home to care for children. That last one would allow those workers to qualify for unemployment benefits.

So far, GE Appliances has not granted any of these requests. Wood, who works in corporate communications, said employees with child care or elder care issues should contact the company to have their case evaluated and a solution offered.

Kindre Batliner, with the union, said an official grievance was submitted to the company Sunday night, followed by an online petition that had nearly 1,000 digital signatures by Monday afternoon. She said a previous petition from last week, through which members requested information on GE Appliance's COVID-19 protocol, received no response from the company.

Wood, with GE Appliances, did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about the grievance, or about how many employees did not come to work Monday.

But GE Appliances wasn’t the only target of the rally-goers’ anger. Many held signs calling out Gov. Andy Beshear, who has become popular across the state for his response to the pandemic. Yet GE Appliances workers aren’t sure why he hasn’t called out their employer like others who have caught his attention.

After the rally on Saturday, Alexandria had a specific hope for what Beshear might say to GE Appliances. It was a phrase he's repeated so much, it's become a meme.

"‘You can't be doing that, you know, you know who you are,’" she said. "Hopefully he says something like, you know, you have, like, a responsibility to your people to care about their health and safety."

No such message came. Several reporters submitted questions to the governor about GE Appliances workers’ concerns, which Beshear responded to during his daily news conference on Saturday.

"We've been having conversations, both with GE and the union. We believe that their discussions are going to continue. We do know that the facility itself has made significant changes," he said. "We also know that the workers aren't necessarily satisfied with those changes. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where people feel safe going to work, and we hope that we can get to that point."

When she arrived at work early Monday, what Alexandria found didn’t make her feel like they had reached that point. Her workspace has no protective barriers. She received cleaning spray, but no wipe to use it on sensitive equipment.

Earlier, she said there’s one way the situation could be resolved.

"I think it's probably going to take people striking, honestly," she said.

Texting from Appliance Park on Monday morning, Alexandria said she felt very stressed, like the company wasn’t taking employee concerns seriously. She didn’t have the vacation days to skip work today. But others did, and production was slow enough that she thinks lots of people didn’t show up. She wishes she could be one of them.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.