On Saturday afternoon in downtown Denver, traffic was backed up around the Capitol, cars were constantly honking, and people were shouting out their windows. It felt almost normal.
The Rise Up Colorado Coalition staged a car rally outside the Capitol Saturday to show solidarity with essential workers as well as advocate for a series of policy demands to protect workers even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Cars with painted windows and signs that read “People over Profits” and “Protect our Workers” drove laps around the Capitol. Even though rally participants were all isolated in their cars, most wore masks to show support for frontline workers.
“Working people are really pulling together,” said Ron Ruggiero, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 105, a union representing nurses, janitors, and other service workers. “They’re doing essential work to care for people and keep people healthy. A vast majority of our members have been working the whole time during the pandemic and risking their lives doing so. We wanted to have a demonstration to celebrate them and also call on employers and the government that there needs to be a lot more done.”
Organizations in the Rise Up Colorado Coalition include the Colorado AFL-CIO, Colorado Education Association, Colorado People’s Alliance, Colorado Working Families Party, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, SEIU Local 105, Together Colorado, United for a New Economy, and 9to5 Colorado.
Over the past few weeks the Capitol has seen a series of protests advocating for Colorado to “reopen” its economy, including one on Friday.
Saturday’s car rally followed social-distancing procedures and promoted the idea that whenever the state reopens, it should make sure its economy did not forget about marginalized populations.
“There’s a lot of conversation about getting back to normal,” Ruggiero said. “What we’re saying is that normal was not working for most people.”
Some of the policy changes demanded by the coalition were included in a letter to state officials last month. The policies — including debt forgiveness, suspension of rent, expanded unemployment benefits, paid sick leave, and whistleblower protection — are meant to relieve the pressures facing essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
One rally participant, Preston Elrod, is a member of United for New Economy (UNE), which is a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights.
“I think it was pretty obvious even before coronavirus that the U.S. economy is not well equipped to deal with even basic problems like healthcare and job issues like benefits for workers,” Elrod said. “And now I think it’s become even more obvious because of COVID-19 that we need to make changes to protect those that actually make our economy run: the people.”
A handful of health care and other essential workers also attended the rally.
Robin Clark is a home care worker for the elderly and explained how difficult it is for them to get the personal protection equipment (PPE) they need to keep their elderly clients, and themselves, healthy.
“We’re out here today to explain that health care workers need PPE,” Clark said. “They want us to go back out on the front lines and to our clients, but they don’t want to give us protective gear.”
Clark pointed to her friend Marilyn Rowe, also a home care worker, who was caring a sign that read, “We need PPE!” Rowe was wearing a mask made out of a napkin to show the lengths healthcare workers have to go to in order to stay healthy.
Many cars at the rally had signs brandishing support for paid sick leave. On April 27 the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment released rules that required employers in certain industries to grant two weeks of sick leave at two-thirds pay.
“Everyone needs paid sick leave, and lots of workers still don’t have that,” Ruggiero said. “It puts workers in a really tough position of deciding whether to go into work and risk their health and others’ health or to stay home and risk not being able to pay their rent.”
Corey Hithon works at an assisted-living facility for seniors, a population considered highly at risk of contracting COVID-19. Some of Hithon’s co-workers have had to move into the facility where they work in order to protect their residents.
“We’re rallying to get benefits, higher pay, and more masks,” Hithon said. “There’s a lot of health care workers who don’t get benefits and are barely making ends meet. Some of us are parents. We’ve got to juggle all of this with taking care of our kids.”
The Rise Up Colorado Coalition has big aspirations for what the state can look like on the other side of the pandemic. But at the very least, Ruggiero hopes that what people get from the rally is the message that, in the short term, health care workers need PPE.
“Another piece that brings all these organizations together — and I would say most Coloradans together — is that no matter what color your skin is or the size of your paycheck, you should feel safe at work,” Ruggiero said.