Downtown St. Louis – As Congress debated the next round of federal stimulus legislation, essential workers caravanned through downtown St. Louis May 14, to demand that healthcare, building service, fast food, transit, public sector employees and other workers are front and center in legislation for things like PPE and essential worker pay.
The caravan started at 4th & Chestnut streets in front of the Gateway Arch and proceeded past City Hall then on to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse downtown where Senators Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley have their St. Louis office.
‘WE’RE ESSENTIAL WORKERS, TOO’
“We’re out here trying to send a message to our elected officials, Senator Blunt and Senator Hawley, that we are essential workers too,” said Eugene Hubbard, a veteran janitor represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1, and familiar voice in the janitor’s campaign for One St. Louis – a region equitable across racial lines. “We are on the frontline. We want to be treated as such. We are here every day. We were called in first to sanitize and clean the buildings before they came up with the stay-at-home order and we’re still here. We just want to be protected.”
Hubbard, who works at the Center for Creative Arts (COCA) in University City, says he’s concerned about having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and wants to see more testing provided.
“We have testing, but we have to come up with symptoms to be tested,” he said. “I think we ought to be tested anyway just because we are on the frontline. We’re cleaning the buildings and we don’t know what we’re coming in contact with.”
IMPACT ON EDUCATION
Kat Fossell, an adjunct professor at St. Louis Community College (STLCC), who is also represented by SEIU Local 1, said she came out to support Local 1 janitors, but also to call for more funding for state and local governments and more specific allocations for higher education in St. Louis and the rest of the county “A lot of our funding at STLCC, obviously we’re a public institution, and our funding comes from the public. We need that funding so that we can continue to serve the population of St. Louis,” Fossell said.
“We are in a deficit so far this year, and I know many other colleges and universities have that as well,” she said. “Without that funding, there is concern that people like me won’t have jobs in the fall, especially as we try to figure out how we can serve everyone in the fall. Do we need stay online, do hybrid classes? The more funding we have, the better that is for us.”
MAKE IT SAFE FOR EMPLOYEES
Shunda Whitfield, a certified nursing assistant at the Estates of Spanish Lake, quarantined at home because she was exposed to a resident who tested positive for COVID-19, but her supervisor still told her to report to work.
“We want the owners to know our concerns and our considerations for our residents as well as our homes and their employees,” Whitfield said. “The Missouri Department of Social Services and Health Department says there are 82 nursing homes that have been affected by the COVID in 16 different counties, as well as the hospitals.
“We’re not saying we don’t want to take care of the people,” she said. “We’re just saying show some type of appreciation, because we are on the frontline. We take the risk going back home.
“You have to be a team to make this thing work,” Whitfield said. “They need to consider making it safe for their employees as well as our residents. They need to have universal testing for all of us. Some of the homes have come on board with us and some have not, that’s why we’re out here still, speaking out for the safety to contain the pandemic.”
John Bowman, president of the St. Louis County Chapter NAACP and a UAW retiree, said the pandemic has been sadly enlightening when it comes to healthcare disparities in Missouri and throughout the country.
“We already knew they were there before this, but this is shining a light on them,” Bowman said. “Basically healthcare is being delivered by your zip code and your income level and that is not the way it should be.
“The NAACP stands firm on healthcare should be available to all. We need to pass Medicaid expansion. We need to eliminate economic inequities and take care of the most vulnerable. It’s a shame that a country this rich, it takes a pandemic to bring people together to do the right thing.”
Frontline workers like those in healthcare, grocery, restaurants and bus drivers are frontline workers and should be treated as such, Bowman said.
“We need to get them the equipment that they need to protect themselves,” he said. “And we need to give more thoughtful attention to bringing people back. Social distancing and wearing the proper PPE is having an impact on flattening the curve.
“If you look at other countries that are starting to go back to their normal behavior, they’re seeing an increase with positive COVID testing again. What good is the income if you don’t have your health. Companies need to make sure workers have the proper protection, the proper separation of workspace and proper PPE equipment. If not, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be right back where we were.”