Essential worker speaks: Kind words aren’t enough | Opinion

Elia Starkweather janitor SEIU 26
Elia Starkweather, a janitor and Vice President at SEIU Local 26, speaks at an news conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As our elected officials get closer to making a final deal at the Legislature, and we continue to make progress in slowing down COVID-19, it’s a complicated time for those of us who have been called “essential” workers over past last year.

As a janitor — like many occupations that people too often overlook until they realize they need us — I was never able to work from home during the pandemic. My union (SEIU Local 26) is majority immigrants and people of color, and out of the 8,000 members, over 1,000 were exposed to COVID-19. Four of my fellow members died from COVID-19. This same situation is being faced by health care workers, food workers, retail store employees and more.

I have diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure, so when I got COVID-19 in July of 2020, I got very, very sick. At one point, the doctors I was talking to said I may need to come to the hospital to be placed on oxygen, and I remember thinking to myself that I’d rather just die at home if I was going to die. It was a scary time for me and my family, and something so many families in Minnesota and across our country faced to keep our state running during the past year.

Like thousands of other Minnesotans, I wasn’t paid when I quarantined at home while I had the coronavirus. So while I was trying to survive, and my family was stressed out with the fears that came with COVID-19, we also worried about our bills. I missed nearly a month of work trying to get better and to help stop the spread. I did what I needed to do and also what was being asked of all of us. But since my job can’t be done at home, I wasn’t paid at all for the time I missed.

I used all my vacation and sick time, and the union gave me $300, but almost a year later I am still struggling to pay my rent and bills. I had to ask relatives and friends for food and money to support my family. So many people are struggling like this, both with health issues from the virus but also the economic damage done. I thought we were “heroes” and “essential”? It sure doesn’t feel like that.

Over the past few months I have been a part of the push to get the Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act passed at the Minnesota Capitol to make sure essential workers who missed time get paid by our employers, including back pay. Like many of my co-workers, I spoke about the need for this bill in front of our elected leaders. We even had a town hall last week where workers from different jobs and parts of the state shared what COVID-19 has meant for us with Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and dozens of members of the Minnesota House and Senate.

Despite lots of support, including the Minnesota House passing Rep. Cedrick Fraizer’s version of the bill and Walz’s budget including a version of this, we still aren’t sure if it will pass. State Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, tried to move this bill in the Senate, but it seemed like the big corporate lobbyists who spoke out against it had more of a voice than we did, so as far as I understand it didn’t move at all.

I believe the workers who kept our state running during this pandemic shouldn’t lose pay just because we got sick. When it was mostly women and people of color facing this situation, it’s hard not to see how what is happening (or not happening) explains why our state has such big disparities between white people and people of color.

It seems so obvious, yet we’re in the final days of the legislative session and it still isn’t clear if this bill — or any support for essential workers like me — will pass. The fact that this is even a question is incredibly frustrating. The kind words people said about “essential workers” last year, and the fancy TV commercials by the big corporations thanking us for our work, seem like they were actually just them saying, “Keep working so we can make massive profits, even if you have to die.” Is that who we are as Minnesotans? I hope not.

I hope that the actions of those in power matches the words about respecting and valuing the frontline workers who got on the bus, went to work and kept our state and country running while many in power were able to work from their kitchen table. I hope we pay back the workers who gave so much during this pandemic. I hope that as the Legislature finishes their work, the Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act is part of the final deal.