SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—SEIU members staged a week-long series of prayer vigils and protests around the nation Aug. 24-28, calling on employers to provide proper protective equipment and the Senate to pass legislation to aid essential workers.
“Workers like us are dying from this disease, and we have to put some light on it,” says Sandra Ellington, a 51-year-old janitor from Cleveland and member of SEIU Local 1. “You wear the mask, you’re washing your hands, but still you don’t know.”
“Workers all throughout our union for the last three months have been pressing to get PPE,” T Gray Albert, a spokesperson for the union’s Justice For Janitors and Stand For Security campaigns, told LaborPress. “They’re at their wit’s end.”
“They are hoping to reach out to elected officials and to other people of faith, including many who put Senate Republicans in power,” she said in a statement. “They are asking Senate Republicans to put their faith in action, and love their neighbors as themselves and act out of compassion.”
The Senate leadership has refused to consider the HEROES Act, a bill the House passed in May. It would require the federal government to use the Defense Production Act to mandate production of personal protective equipment, establish a plan for distributing it, and set and enforce an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from occupational exposure to airborne infectious disease.
“You’re talking about somebody’s life. We’re human beings. We’re not garbage,” Ellington says. “It seems this government is not seeing that.”
The week began with a vigil in Minneapolis Aug. 24 organized by SEIU Local 26 in memory of Lorenzo Palma, a 66-year-old janitor who died of COVID-19 Aug. 3, and ended with one in Houston Aug. 28. Other actions included memorials to San Diego social worker Ronda Felder, a Local 221 member who contracted the virus while doing fieldwork, and Mel Stahmer, a mail carrier and union activist from the Iowa City area; a car caravan by janitors in the San Francisco Bay Area; and a candlelight vigil outside Amazon offices in Seattle.
“We need PPE for all the compañeros,” health-clinic janitor Guadalupe Azúa said in Spanish at an Aug. 27 vigil in Denver organized by Local 105.
Workers’ main concerns, aside from protective equipment, include protections against layoffs and being informed when someone in the building they work in has tested positive for the virus, Albert said.
“The building hides it—they send somebody to clean and you don’t know what you’re cleaning,” San Francisco janitor Marcos Aranda, 30, told LaborPress.
He’s been lucky, he said, because “we’ve been provided PPE during most of the pandemic,” but he had a scare when an asymptomatic coworker tested positive for the virus.
“I was the last person to have contact with him,” Aranda says. “If I had known, it would have been a lot easier.”
He was unable to get tested because he wasn’t showing symptoms, he explains, and his employer would not let him take paid time off to quarantine without a doctor’s note.
He’s surprised he hasn’t been laid off, because the building he works in is almost completely empty. “I’m already living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. Aranda shares an apartment in downtown San Francisco with his partner, their six children, and four family members. The advantage is he can walk to work and doesn’t need a car; the disadvantage is that it’s crowded.
Getting a bigger place, he says, would require moving far out of the city. For housing available in San Francisco, “if it’s low-income, we make too much, and if it’s market-rate, it’s not enough.”
Meanwhile, Aranda is on the bargaining committee as SEIU United Service Workers West tries to negotiate a new contract with the trade association of downtown landlords. It’s going very slowly, he says. One issue is that the union wants the contract to mandate PPE for any future outbreak of infectious disease, while management wants to limit it to COVID-19.
“We’re still going in to work,” he says. “I hope Congress does something to help essential workers.”
In Cleveland, says Ellington, the pandemic has not stopped office-building management from trying to replace union cleaning contractors with nonunion companies.
“We have to fight for every little bitty thing because we don’t have certain titles. That is not right,” says Ellington. “We are not going to stop fighting…. We’re going to do our best talking at the ballot box.”