After the second death of a Twin Cities janitor from COVID-19, local union leaders are imploring elected officials to help ensure employers offer their workers adequate protection from the virus that causes the disease.
The state's property services union, SEIU Local 26, held a news conference and vigil Monday to remember janitor Lorenzo Palma, 66, who died of COVID-19 on Aug. 3. Palma had worked for Harvard Maintenance for three years, cleaning the Ameriprise building in downtown Minneapolis.
"We are heartbroken and upset to be here again to share that we have lost another member," said Iris Altamirano, president of SEIU Local 26. "The members … are bearing the brunt of this terrible virus."
Harvard Maintenance could not be reached for comment Monday.
The union — which represents 8,000 workers in Minnesota, including 4,000 janitors — is demanding adequate protective equipment, better training to prevent workers from becoming infected, and extra time to wash hands and perform other safety measures. The group also wants access to COVID-19 testing, pay for workers who are quarantined and daily uniform laundering.
Union leaders also are urging state and city officials to create an "essential workers council" to improve standards and give workers a venue to communicate concerns about the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
"We just don't want more people to die for having to do essential work," Altamirano said, adding that although the buildings downtown are mostly empty, workers are still getting sick.
Sandra Palma, 29, Lorenzo's youngest daughter, participated in the news conference via cellphone from Nebraska. She said her father came to the U.S. at 23 from Mexico, later bringing his family.
"He has been a worker his whole life," she said. "Unfortunately, [he] did not have life insurance through his company."
The only assistance the family has received was through the union, Sandra Palma said. The family is struggling, she said, and has set up a GoFundMe page "to make ends meet."
Palma's death follows that of another janitor, Armando Solis, who died April 22 of COVID-19. Solis was in his early 50s and cleaned the U.S. Bank Building downtown.
About 230 SEIU Local 26 union members have tested positive for the virus and are now survivors, Altamirano said, including 8% of retail workers, 3% of janitors, and 2% of security and airport employees.
Abdi Haybe, an SEIU executive board member, worked second shift with Palma at Ameriprise for three years. He would meet up with Palma in the lunchroom, where the two often joked around.
Palma was happy and smiling, Haybe said, describing him as "a special person."
"Now we lost him from COVID," Haybe said. "No person should have to worry about dying when they go to work."
Haybe said that although workers like him are deemed "essential," they aren't treated that way.
Palma was gone from work in early July, Haybe said, but co-workers weren't told where he went. He wants that to change.
The union is asking for immediate notification if a fellow employee tests positive for the virus.
Altamirano said that people of color are disproportionately being affected by the pandemic. She believes things will only get worse, she said.
A recent SEIU survey showed that 73% of members were nervous about going to work and 45% had received no training related to COVID-19 safety measures. One in five members said they didn't have gloves at work and 2 in 5 didn't have masks.
SEIU workers "have no choice but to go to work every day," Altamirano said. "It's time for elected officials to step up."