St. Louis – Nearly 150 custodians, groundskeepers, and distribution workers returned to the bargaining table last week, as they continue keeping Saint Louis University (SLU) running amidst a spike in COVID-19 cases across the St. Louis region.
In a story published Dec. 1 detailing how COVID-19 is worsening the racial income gap, the Los Angeles Times highlighted Mitchell Hughes, a SLU custodian who contracted COVID-19 earlier this summer.
His first symptom was diarrhea, he told the Times, then he had trouble breathing and broke out in a feverish sweat.
By the time he recovered Hughes had missed more than a month of work and drained his $4,000 savings to keep up with his mortgage and other bills after his sick pay fell short.
He and his wife, Crystal Simmons Hughes, 53, a nursing assistant who cares for the elderly, made it through the illness but were left depleted and anxious about the resurgence in infections.
“We were essential workers from the beginning,” Hughes told the Times. “We didn’t get hazardous pay. We take the trash, do windows, doorknobs. We’re on the front lines.”
Nationwide, labor market statistics confirm that low-wage workers like Hughes have been hit the hardest,” the Times reports.
The number of employees in jobs paying less than $27,000 a year — Hughes makes just under that — has begun to slip again and is down 20 percent from January, according to Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-run pandemic tracking group. “By contrast, the number of high-wage employees has fully recovered from the pandemic,” the Times reports.
RACIAL AND ECONOMIC INEQUALITY
Hughes’ story highlights the struggles of the dedicated front-line essential workers who are at risk of getting COVID-19 themselves as they keep campus safe, clean, and healthy. Essential workers are predominantly from Black and Brown communities and are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
As one of the largest institutions in St. Louis, SLU could help address the racial and economic inequity in the region by ensuring the front-line essential workers who are keeping campus running can support their families.
SLU custodians, groundskeepers and distribution workers need a strong new contract that will protect their jobs from outsourcing, provide them a clear and fast path to $15 an hour and give them stronger protections to keep themselves safe. With their current agreement with Saint Louis University expiring at the end of the year, and negotiations for a new one continuing, SEIU Local 1 members are telling SLU that working families cannot wait for the fair contract they need to keep themselves, their families, and the SLU campus safe and healthy.