As three Minnesotans whose families have dealt directly with the COVID-19 virus over the last few months, we know how important it is for employers and our government to take action to keep Minnesota families safe from this awful virus. That’s why we believe working people should be at the table when decisions about “reopening” the economy and workplace safety are being made.
Two of us are janitors and one is a security officer. Members of our union, SEIU Local 26, clean and protect stores and commercial office buildings across the Twin Cities. As our state continues our “reopening” process, we know the risk of COVID-19 will continue to grow for many people. That is why our union has been pushing our employers and elected officials to do everything possible to keep working families safe in Minnesota.
Janitors and security officers have been deemed “essential” workers since almost the start of the outbreak and we continued to do our jobs even as many were able to work remotely. The janitors and security officers of our union are majority Black, people of color and immigrants. The jobs we do can’t be done over Zoom or at our kitchen tables. The jobs that we do are too often overlooked, but this virus once again showed how our society can’t function without our work, whether we call it “essential” or not.
Over the last few months we have seen more than 200 members of our union come down with COVID-19. Sadly, we have even seen one member of our union family, Armando Solis, die from this terrible virus.
COVID-19 was different for each of us. For two of us it spread to our families and we had to struggle with not only the terrible pain from the coughs and body aches, but we worried about our loved ones who were older or had health issues. Some of our family members ended up having to go to the hospital. For all of us this was something we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. It was scary and painful. It meant not only health issues, but dealing with missing work and the bills piling up.
A recent survey of hundreds of members of SEIU Local 26 found that 73% said they were nervous about going to work; 20% said they did not have gloves, 40% said they didn’t have masks and 45% reported no training around COVID-19 protections. We hope these numbers have gone down since then, but until everyone has the PPE and training they need, and pay that respects the critical work we are doing, we will keep fighting.
This summer we released our demands on what we believe all employers should do for a safe “reopening.” You can see them all here, but the main points we are pushing for are:
- Conditions for Safe Working (PPE, training, better cleaning standards)
- Building Reopening Plans (publication and worker input on how employers are keeping employees and public safe)
- Fair Standards for Essential Worker (Essential worker pay bonus, higher staffing levels, worker councils to help decide next steps)
As you can see, these demands all seem pretty basic and things you would hope employers are doing already, but we’ve seen too many companies that aren’t stepping up and doing what is right. That is why we are pushing employers at the bargaining table, and also pushing our elected officials to be firm in ensuring that no one has to risk getting sick to go to work.
For anyone who doubts it, we can attest that COVID-19 is scary, painful and has long-lasting effects, both in regard to health and to your budget. The stakes are high for us to make sure we are all safe and healthy. We need those in power to listen to those of us directly impacted and do what is right for families across our state by following our demands and making sure those directly impacted have a seat at the table.
Willie Jones Jr. is a security officer, Ernesto Garcia is a commercial janitor and Gregoria Estrada is a retail janitor. All three are members of SEIU Local 26, the union of more than 8,000 members who do property service work in the Twin Cities.
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