The pandemic is not over, and frontline workers are still exhausted

Essential workers from all around Minnesota give testimony about their working conditions.

The Frontline Worker Pay Working Group has an immense and difficult task in front of them: figure out how to measure the value of the workers who have put themselves in harm’s way every day, before and during the pandemic, and how to disburse $250 million in funds allocated to them. And try to do all that by Labor Day.

Local government officials in the meeting today included Rep. Ann Neu Brindley (district 32B), Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (30), Sen. Cedrick Frazier (45A), House Majority Leader and Group Chair Rep. Ryan Winkler (46A), Group Vice Chair Sen. Karin Housley (39), and Sen. Erin Murphy (64). Several staff from the Legislative Coordinating Committee were present including Executive Director Michelle Weber, Sally Olson, Commission Administrator, and Sandy Most, Administrative Commission Assistant. Commissioner Robert Doty of the Department of Revenue and Commissioner Steve Grove of the Department of Employment and Economic Development were also present.

The group must consider financial burden and risk of exposure when deciding which workers will receive funds and how much funds they will receive. The recommendations must be made by September 6, and seven out of nine members must vote to approve them.

After looking at the source of funds and definitions of essential work, the officials listened to dozens of workers share their stories. You can read written testimonies here or begin watching them here.

A few stories:

Dan Colgan, an administrator with Redeemer Health Care Center in South Minneapolis, donned a set of personal protective equipment to give everyone a striking visual: “This is the war gear of our healthcare workers...this pandemic is a war. It’s a war against an enemy that we knew nothing about to begin with. We had little equipment to battle this pandemic. In 2020, we admitted over 237 residents with covid from various community facilities in the Minneapolis area and from as far away as Princeton and Milaca. On average, our residents stayed at least 14 days and some never returned...we had 22 deaths. Six deaths within one day. We have an employee group of 150 employees and 37 of those employees contracted covid while serving on the covid unit. It’s impossible to immerse you today in what the frontline really looks like and feels like.”

Eloy Wood from Long Prairie has worked at Long Prairie Packing for 10 years: “Meatpacking workers were designated as essential...it’s always been hard work. During the pandemic, we worked even harder. Six days a week, 12 hour shifts. I became scared to go to work. I have a breathing disorder which makes me more susceptible to catching covid-19 and having worse side effects. But more terrifying to me would be spreading it to my family…two of my children have preexisting conditions. Long Prairie Packing gave us protective equipment, installed plastic shields, and put signs in the break rooms to social distance...still, more than half of my coworkers contracted covid during the pandemic.”

Antonio Jimenez, a meatpacking worker from Worthington and member of UFCW Local 663: “In the spring of 2020, a COVID outbreak tore through my plant and I was one of the workers who got sick. I was out sick for weeks. I worried the whole time about passing the infection on to my children, family, and friends. My union provided me with information and resources so I could go on short-term disability. Most people I know have at least a couple friends who got COVID. In my plant, more than 50 percent of the workers got COVID. While things have improved, COVID is still here in our community, and it’s still here for me, personally. I still struggle with the after-effects – lingering symptoms and fatigue. I support frontline worker pay for meatpacking workers because we have worked to keep this state fed and exposed ourselves and our families to extreme risk in doing so.”

Paul Swanson, a grocery store worker at Lunds & Byerly’s in Wayzata and member of UFCW Local 663: “The initial impact of COVID-19 for myself and my co-workers was the rush of customers during the hoarding phase. We went from doing regular business to three times the business overnight. A big impact was COVID protocols at work--if anyone had a covid exposure, you had to quarantine for 14 days without pay. This meant my coworkers who are part timers had no vacation and lost income. Those of us with vacation would have to choose to use vacation to be able to get a paycheck. COVID definitely created financial hardships for grocery store workers.”

Xavier Heim is a member of SEIU Local 26 and a security officer with G4S in downtown Minneapolis with Xcel Energy: “Despite public health mandates and guidelines, it was months before we had simple sanitary supplies and masks. My colleagues, overwhelmingly black and brown people with families, got sick because they weren’t protected. They couldn’t take the time they needed to recover. In spite of all this, essential workers stepped up, put ourselves directly in harm’s way every day knowing it could cost us everything. $250 million is a good start but by taking action today you could have more of an impact on our lives. Unfortunately, the pandemic enabled many of our employers to take advantage of existing systems of discrimination to ensure this money might not make it in the hands of the people who need it.”

Edward Reynoso, political director for Teamsters Council 32: “We represent all the workers at UPS, and they played an essential role, a critical role, in delivering essential items including vaccines. We represent freight drivers, they played an essential role in delivering hospitals in all the supply chains essential products. We represent Teamsters in long-term settings including healthcare facilities.”

Clare Sandford, Director of Government Relations at New Horizon Academy, said social distancing has been impossible for childcare workers: “In addition to that increased health risk, providers also assume increased financial risk. We continue to endure wave after wave of economic disruption every single time a case occurs in a child or staff member. One case in a program can close a single classroom, multiple rooms, and sometimes even entire programs for two weeks at a time. Imagine that rollercoaster with your livelihood happening over and over and over again. And it’s still happening.”

Cleveland Donazal, former storekeeper for 28 years at Bethesda Hospital before it closed after 140 years of operation: “I was on the frontline when covid started. I was part of the supply chain. I was the person that provided the gloves, the mask, the face shields. I also provided safety equipment to staff and patients. We had no knowledge of what was happening or how things were going to go. We wanted to make sure that the patients were taken care of, but also we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t bring (covid) home.”

Lori Smith works in food service at a St. Cloud school and is on the executive board of her local SEIU: “I know the kids who come through my lunch line and I know who doesn’t get enough to eat at home. Even though I’m not supposed to, I slip them a little extra. On the weekends I make sure the hungry kids go home with backpacks. I know that nutrition is one of the most important factors for student growth and academic success...food service employees are critical to student health and wellbeing. During the pandemic we distributed bag lunches and breakfasts from multiple sites across St. Cloud. On my way home from work, I would bring 11 lunches to neighbor kids that I knew couldn’t make it to the school. I would ring their doorbell and I would dash so we could keep our distance. The kitchens where we work are not designed for social distancing...we knew that showing up for work would give us a higher risk of getting covid. We did it anyway because we knew our kids and our communities were counting on us.”

Adam Dahmen-Sikkink has been a youth worker for AspireMN for two years: “I have tried every job from fast food worker to soldier. I chose to become a youth care professional because I wanted to make a difference in the lives and support kids to help them build a healthy future for themselves and others around them. During this time, many youth workers caught covid, which meant they couldn’t work, which meant more work for us. Those who were fortunate not to catch covid saw themselves working 60, 70, 80 hours plus to keep the organization forward. I found myself working 16 hour shifts. ”

Antonietta Giovanni is a homecare worker and parent and member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota: “I care for my son, who is 28, a young handsome boy...he suffers greatly with autism and epilepsy. At the beginning of this pandemic, I lost my PCA, because of a family member with covid, so I had to care 24/7 for my son without help. Covid is not over. Parents like me, homecare workers, don’t have the privilege of going back to normalcy. We’re still struggling with this. Caring for medically fragile people who are at risk for severe illness who are vaccinated, we are still on the hidden frontline of this pandemic.”

Eva Lopez, vice president of SEIU Local 26, is a mother and has been a janitor for over 10 years: “Over 1000 members of our union have had to miss work because of covid, and four died...we cleaned buildings, offices, and retail stores throughout Minnesota through the pandemic and have struggled with the fear of getting covid. Our work keeps others safe, but we often did not have basic protection like masks or gloves. It was often immigrants and people of color who faced this risk and often did not have a chance to work from home. No amount of money will bring back the people we lost or erase the challenges we have faced the past year. $250 million is a good start, but we need this money to get to working families as fast as possible. We need this to be easy, to be fast, and to not leave anyone behind.”

Mary Turner, nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said at times she felt like she failed to protect her fellow staff as a labor leader: “The numbers are back up again. So it’s not over. Our nurses have picked up double and triple shifts for the last 18 months. We have sacrificed being able to go home to our families. We have nurses and frontline workers who had to quarantine because they ran into somebody who had covid. Unless you actually had covid, that meant you had to quarantine without pay or benefits...I will always remember the night that I was with this gentlemen, who was dying of covid who had the same blue eyes as my father, my father who died in the nursing home that I couldn’t see for two and a half weeks before he died of covid...there was no way I was leaving that room, there was no way I was going to leave him alone. I was on the Zoom call with his only son as he said goodbye to him. That will haunt me and stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Every life is precious. We are each other’s harvest.