“This is not a game” — Union Members Hold Vigil for Essential Workers Struck by COVID-19

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Standing around luminarias made from candles and brown paper bags, a small group of SEIU6 Property Services NW (SEIU6) union members gathered late on Thursday night under the Bank of America building located at 800 5th Ave. in downtown Seattle.

At roughly 10:00 p.m., the union members took turns placing roses on a sign that read, “in remembrance of our fallen essential worker.”

The vigil was held to honor a SEIU6 member and Washington resident who died from COVID-19 earlier this month as well as to honor at least 14 SEIU6 union members who are currently battling the virus, according to the union.

A candlelight vigil for the essential workers who have been lost to COVID-19. (Photo Credit: Chloe Collyer)

“It’s tragic, you know, this member lost her life but her family lost her, and it just brings to life how real and tragic and devastating this COVID-19 has been,” said Zenia Javalera, president of SEIU6. “She’s right now being survived by her family, which is why we’re out here paying our respects. We don’t want any more COVID-19 deaths.”

Members used a projector to display the words “essential pay for essential workers” and the hashtag “#protectallworkersSEIU6” onto the front of the Bank of America building, where SEIU6 members work, using the gathering as an opportunity to speak about the need for essential pay and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Zenia Javalera, president of SEIU6, at Thursday’s vigil for essential workers. (Photo Credit: Chloe Collyer)

“Our members every single day are having to come to work with anxiety and fear,” Javalera said in a speech. “Anxiety, because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. And fear, because of contracting this COVID-19 to our families.”

Javalera also mentioned how the virus is disproportionately affecting People of Color. Prior to the vigil, the union sent out a brief highlighting the risk essential workers face while sanitizing hospitals and commercial spaces.

“This is real — this is not a game,” Mark Guthrie Sr., an SEIU6 union member, told the Emerald. “People are dying from [COVID-19] and we essential workers, we are the brunt of this fight against the coronavirus … when you see death, you know this is real.”

Guthrie works as a shop steward and janitor at Pacific Place Mall where he has been sanitizing everyday and is also responsible for cleaning up biohazards — putting him at greater risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. He said it can feel dehumanizing and demoralizing when his work is not recognized as being essential in the fight against COVID-19.

“Essential workers need to be recognized as vital as any industry during this coronavirus,” Guthrie said. “We are very important — without us I think the coronavirus would have spread more rapidly because we’re disinfecting … With people dying [it] shows you that we are really on the forefront of this virus, fighting this virus.”

Mark Guthrie of SEIU6. (Photo Credit: Chloe Collyer)

Guthrie is one of the union’s 8,000 members, including janitors, security officers, airport passenger service workers and allied industry workers represented by SEIU6 Property Services NW. SEIU6 is the Washington State property service branch of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the country.

Ambar Arellano, another SEIU6 member, told the Emerald that working in these conditions has taken an emotional toll. Each morning Arellano wakes up at 3:30 a.m. She rides the bus from Federal Way to Seattle, where she works as a janitor and spends her days disinfecting. After work, she rides the bus home again. Both her work and riding public transportation put her at greater risk of exposure to the virus.

“It’s depressing. It’s like every time I think about it, it’s stressful,” Arellano said.

Ambar Arellano of SEIU6 at Thursday night’s vigil held in downtown Seattle. (Photo Credit: Chloe Collyer)

In the same way that essential workers have been working to protect the community, Arellano said that she wants structures put in place to protect essential workers. While her work is now providing her with masks, Arellano said it wasn’t that way in the beginning.

To Javalera, the President of the SEIU6, higher pay and PPE are essential, as greater physical and financial burdens have resulted from the pandemic. With schools and daycares closed and  workers being reluctant to take public transportation for fear of contracting the virus, Javalera says life is more expensive.

“Our members right now are underpaid as it is, so them getting compensated for having to do the essential work is really important,” Javalera said.

SEIU6 members project a message on a nearby building at Thursday night’s vigil. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

While the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act — which includes another round of stimulus checks and $200 billion dollars in hazard pay — on May 15, the bill has stalled in the Senate. Even in the event that it does pass, critics wonder if the definitions of who is considered an “essential worker” are too broad and there are questions as to how well the money will be distributed.

In the current situation, Guthrie says workers are faced with tough decisions.

“A lot of us cannot miss work because we have family, we’ve got rent, we’ve got bills to pay,” Guthrie said. “We either have to decide, no money… or we come to work and get exposed to the coronavirus.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a recent journalism graduate with a passion for writing human-centric pieces. Some of her most recent work includes writing for the Jordan Times where she highlighted issues faced by refugees.

Featured image: SEIU6 members gather at a vigil held Thursday night in downtown Seattle (Photo Credit: Chloe Collyer)