Twin Cities janitor dies from COVID-19; union demands PPE and hazard pay

Armando Solis, a janitor at U.S. Bank Plaza, died from COVID-19 on April 22. Photo courtesy of the family.

Armando Solis helped secure the biggest pay increases in the history of his union just two months ago.

Last week, Solis, who worked as a janitor for 10 years in the U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, died from COVID-19, leaving behind a wife and two adult sons. He was 55.

“Our union is heartbroken for Armando and his family,” said the Service Employees International Union Local 26 President Iris Altamirano through tears during a Zoom press conference Wednesday. “I’m angry that he died, and I’m sad. No one should die for having to go to work.”

The union held the press conference to call on employers to provide hazard pay, personal protective equipment and special training to deal with the coronavirus for its roughly 8,000 member janitors, security guards and airport workers.

To date, Altamirano says 10 union members have tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms. That includes Jessica Romero, a janitor at Medtronic, who was supposed to speak at the press conference but was admitted to the hospital earlier Wednesday along with her two daughters, eight and six years old. Romero’s husband and mother-in-law are also infected with the virus.

Most workers with SEIU Local 26 are people of color and immigrants, who are bearing the brunt of COVID-19’s health and economic wreckage. Altamirano says 10-15% of its members have been laid off because of COVID-19, while the rest continue to perform their duties as essential workers.

SEIU Local 26 President Iris Altamirano held a press conference Wednesday calling on employers of some 8,000 janitors and security officers to provide hazard pay, personal protective equipment and additional training.

“The workers I represent are critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Altamirano said. “It’s time for all workers, janitors and security officers, to have access to personal protective equipment and also (hazard) pay they deserve.”

Some employers provide hazard pay and PPE, but it’s not uniform across the union. Two in five SEIU Local 26 workers don’t receive masks and one in five don’t receive gloves, according to a survey the union conducted of its members. Altamirano says the union dipped into its own budget to order thousands of masks and gloves for its members.

They also found nearly half haven’t received proper training on how to deal with COVID-19 — which requires specific chemicals and protocols to eradicate — and half feel ill-equipped to deal with the virus.

Lizbeth Vega Lopez, a janitor at a grocery store, said she works in fear every day.

“I have to go to work to pay for rent and food,” Vega Lopez said in Spanish through an interpreter. “But I feel so much fear to go out. I have a family that I want to make sure is safe, but I don’t feel like my company has given me enough training. Every day and every night we have to confront danger.”

She says she has not received hazard pay like many other essential workers are earning given the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Workers who test positive for COVID-19 or must care for someone who is sick are eligible for two weeks paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but that only applies to workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees. Many members of SEIU Local 26 work for contractors far larger than that who aren’t providing additional paid time off related to COVID-19.

The union’s 4,000 commercial janitors went on a 24-hour strike on February 28 before signing a new contract in March. They aren’t allowed to strike now because they’re under contract.

“We are a very innovative union, and so we’re always thinking about what we can do,” Altamirano said. “I don’t know what that means right now, but my workers can’t be dying for going to work.”

A lawyer for Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association, which represents more than a dozen employers, was not immediately available for comment.