On Tuesday morning, union leaders representing Colorado workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic logged into a virtual press conference to discuss the virus’s impact on daily life.
Officers from the Colorado branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) highlighted the voices and experiences of “essential workers” statewide.
Dennis Dougherty, Colorado AFL-CIO’s executive director, said “people’s health, livelihood and ability to provide for themselves are at stake,” and that “low-income workers have been disproportionately impacted.”
Josette Jaramillo is the president of the Colorado AFL-CIO and the lead caseworker for the foster care unit at Pueblo County’s Department of Human Services.
“I am working from my kitchen right now,” she said, “so during the day my kitchen table is my office and in the evening, it’s a regular kitchen table.”
Although Jaramillo and many of her co-workers are now working from home to the greatest degree possible, she said everyone at her department is considered “essential staff” and that there’s been no move “at the federal level to change the face-to-face requirements that we have in child welfare to see our kids once a month.”
“We are still very much in family homes, we are still very much visiting with providers,” Jaramillo said. “If I need to see a family and I need to see kids, I have to see those kids.”
Alex Aguilar is the president of Branch 47 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents most post offices in the Denver metro area. He said postal workers are another “essential” group of civil servants.
“I’ve been in the postal service thirty years, and in my time… [it] has only shut down for me twice,” he said.
Aguilar recalled that home delivery carried on through the anthrax scare and the swine flu era. Still, he characterized the present pandemic as the greatest threat the post office has even seen.
Aguilar said each letter carrier receives an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer, sourced locally from Westminster’s Mad Rabbit Distillery which has shifted its production away from spirits. He also said each carrier is supplied with gloves, sanitary wipes and a mask.
But not everybody who spoke felt their people were getting what they needed.
“It seems like the security industry is being overlooked in many ways,” said Ernest Higgs, a Denver security officer and representative for Service Employees International Union Local 105. “We would like to be recognized as an industry that really needs that support.”
Higgs said the “security industry has been deemed vital, so we’re pretty much safe for today as far as employment goes.”
He added that “it all depends on who we work for… Some places are scaling down. Some places are boosting up.”
“We’re here to protect those buildings no matter what,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
Recently, Higgs said workplace safety has become a primary concern.
“We come in contact with people constantly,” Higgs said. “Right now, our biggest concern is making sure we have enough gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes.”
Higgs said he and his counterparts “don’t have those supplies.”
Service Industry at the Airport
Some – like Grayson Landauer, a former lead barista at a Starbucks located in Denver International Airport (DIA) – were laid off altogether as the crisis worsened.
At DIA, every branch of Starbucks is run by HMSHost – an Italian multi-national travel-oriented food service company.
“My co-workers and I started organizing a union at HMSHost months ago to improve the pay and benefits,” Landauer said, but “a week ago, due to the coronavirus, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) canceled the in-person elections.”
Landauer said HMSHost neglected to participate in NLRB’s alternative mail-in election, dooming the possibility of organized labor for the company’s DIA workforce.
Recently, Landauer and many of their co-workers were laid off with little to no explanation.
“HMSHost has not laid off all their workers,” they said, “but I know they’ve laid off a significant number.”
Landauer is a part-time student at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I’ve been working really hard to build up my savings and go full time at CU this summer or fall,” they said, “but now I just have to put this dream on hold.”
Landauer said, “While working for Starbucks at HMSHost I never had sanitizer. It was never even talked about.”
On a Federal Level
While the discussion was focused mostly on the day-to-day conditions of workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, a few sought to broaden the conversation.
“Last week, the airports sought to give a bailout to the airport companies, including HMSHost, without any public process,” Landauer said. “DIA needs to do better and ensure that rent relief for companies like HMSHost is shared by people like me, who make the airport the success that it is.”
“I’m really worried about my rent. I’m a type one diabetic with a lot of out-of-pocket medical costs. My car is old and needs repairs,” they said. “I don’t see why HMSHost gets a bailout and gets to lay us off. These are people’s livelihoods.”
Dougherty said, “As the governor, legislature and congress create committees and packages to pull us out of this crisis, we must remember that workers drive the economy.”
He pointed out that “72% of our economy is driven by consumer spending. When consumers don’t have money to spend, businesses will fail regardless of how many loans or bailouts we give them.”
“We don’t need a corporate bailout,” he said. “We need a people’s bailout.”