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Members Fighting Coronavirus Pandemic Share Their Stories, Urge Feds to do More

From left to right/top to bottom: Derrick Fields, Blake Anderson, Pam Wells. Member-provided photos.
Members Fighting Coronavirus Pandemic Share Their Stories, Urge Feds to do More
By Pete Levine ·

AFSCME members fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic joined AFSCME President Lee Saunders on a press call to share their stories of how they’re protecting their communities despite risks to themselves. They also called on the U.S. Senate to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“Every time there is a national challenge or crisis, public service workers show up and answer the call,” Saunders said during the Monday call. “They rush into the fire and not away from it. It was true on September 11, 2001. It was true in the aftermath of Katrina. And it is true today as we’re all trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic.”

Saunders added that the jobs that AFSCME members hold, such as health care workers, home care providers, child care workers, first responders, school employees, and so many more, are on the front lines of the pandemic and are – according to the New York Times – at the greatest risk of contracting the virus.

Three AFSCME members from across the country shared their stories of heroism and sacrifice.

Derrick Fields, a head custodian at Medina Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, and president of OAPSE Local 580, works every day to provide a safe and sanitary learning environment for the roughly 400 students who attend his school.

“If we fail to keep classrooms, gymnasiums and cafeterias clean, that means both students and staff risk getting sick or injured,” said Fields. “Amid the spread of a highly contagious and lethal virus, this work – although largely out of sight – becomes even more important in keeping our communities safe and healthy.”

Fields said his greatest concern is ensuring the health and well-being of Columbus’ children when they return to school once they reopen. Many students at his school don’t have food at home. Despite the risks associated with venturing into the community, Fields has volunteered to assist in providing breakfast and lunch to kids in 13 locations during Ohio’s school shutdown.

For Blake Anderson, the call of public service that animates his work as an emergency medical service worker with American Emergency Medical (AMR) in Sacramento, Yolo and Placer counties in California, led him to join a “strike team” of EMS workers deployed to Oakland, California, where the Grand Princess cruise ship had been docked for a week.

He and his team were on call, working around the clock to treat patients on the ship and transport those with symptoms safely to the appropriate medical facility. 

“I am willing to stay here and help for as long as I need to because we need people to step up in these trying times,” said Anderson, a member of AFSCME United EMS Local 4911. “I urge our elected leaders to do their part. That means ensuring we have the tools we need to keep doing the job and providing timely and accurate information to the public about how they can prevent exposure.”

For Pam Wells, who runs the Wells Wonder World day care in Argyle, New York, and is the president of CSEA/VOICE Local 100 A, a statewide union for New York state home child care providers, the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified the role that she and other child care providers play in their communities: that of an irreplaceable anchor.

“Parents who have to go to work to keep food on the table and pay the bills will need us now more than ever,” said Wells. “As schools close, the nurses, police officers and thousands of other public service workers responding to this crisis will also need child care for their school-age children.”

Wells said she was worried whether home-based child care operators like hers would be able to remain open and whether they would have enough supplies to last through the pandemic. Nevertheless, she said, “We will continue to do our jobs, serve our communities, and take care of our kids, for as long as it is safe to do so. Nothing matters more than protecting them.”

Dalia Thornton, director of AFSCME’s Department of Research and Collective Bargaining, said on the call that front-line workers and the economy need significantly more federal help.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved over the weekend and is now stalled in the Senate, “moves us closer toward efforts to respond to this crisis, it doesn't go far enough,” Thornton said. “Private employers with more 500 employees – which includes many hospitals – aren't required to comply. This potentially leaves huge numbers of workers right where they started.”

Full details on what’s in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as passed the House and the additional assistance AFSCME members are seeking from the Senate are available here.

“The federal government has got to step up to the plate to have a coordinated, thoughtful effort – a strategic plan – to deal with [these issues],” Saunders said. “We have a responsibility to continue to provide the level of services that we historically provide to the American people.”

(Contributing: Raju Chebium)

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