Colorado workers on front lines of coronavirus say they lack resources, training

Denver International Airport’s main terminal. Photo Credit: (iStock) tvirbikis

As the number of known U.S. cases of the coronavirus climbs to more than 5,000, Colorado workers held a video press conference on Tuesday to share personal stories about their working conditions and what they need to stay safe both physically and financially amid a growing pandemic.

From janitors and teachers to firefighters and airport workers, each person sat behind their computer screens to share their struggles, which ranged from a shortage of work materials to a lack of paid sick time.

“The COVID-19 outbreak across this country is exposing the deep flaws in a low-wage economy,” said Ron Ruggiero, president of the Colorado-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 105, which hosted the meeting. “Those flaws make all of us more vulnerable in normal times, and they certainly are put into stark relief in a crisis such as this.

“We need a people’s bailout,” he continued. “We need workers to be protected at work as much as possible from contracting this virus and also from the economic fallout.”

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Yuliana Guerrero, who has worked as a janitor in Denver for the past six years, said in Spanish that a number of her coworkers — who she said are many people’s “greatest support that people have to defend” against the coronavirus — “don’t have adequate materials” to clean with and are also “very worried about the security that they have at work.”

Berhanu Ayele, a contractor for Southwest Airlines at Denver International Airport who pushes wheelchairs for passengers in need, said he is concerned that the cancellation of flights will put him out of work.

“On top of that, there seems to be little effort into training airport workers on how to handle this crisis,” he said, “as well as not being provided the materials and supplies we need to ensure that workers, seniors and everyone are properly protected.”

Jimmy Allen, a firefighter in Aurora, said there is simply not enough protective gear, such as masks, gowns and oxygen treatments, to ensure he and other first responders are protecting others as well as themselves.

“We have enough for a few calls, maybe, but now we have to pick and choose what calls we’re going to wear our protective measures on,” Allen said. “We should be at a place right now where we don’t have to pick and choose… The supplies should be endless.”

Jamie Simpson, who also joined the conference call remotely, is a Colorado-based flight attendant and said every day is pervaded by worry.

“We are facing the fact that every day we leave for work, we don’t know,” she said. “We have no guarantee that we will be able to make it home with the ever-evolving restrictions and changes.”

Simpson said that she and her colleagues fear they could be quarantined “in any state or country that we fly into” and must consider a plan for loved ones, including their children. Meanwhile, she said, daycare centers “have started to deny care for flight attendants’ children because we are at high-risk of carrying the virus.”

She, along with just about every other worker on the video conference call, also expressed the need for paid sick leave.

“We’re calling upon our state and federal leaders, but also the business community, that this is the time to do right by workers,” said Ruggiero of SEIU Local 105. “By doing right by workers … with paid sick time and the supplies, equipment and training people need, this actually would benefit all of us.”

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