Denver front line workers say their employers aren’t protecting them physically or economically from the coronavirus

They need more supplies and more healthcare benefits.

The sparsely occupied East economy parking field at Denver International Airport, which had a noticeably quieter feel Tuesday afternoon, March 17, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (Hart Van Denberg/CPRNews)

The sparsely occupied East economy parking field at Denver International Airport, which had a noticeably quieter feel Tuesday afternoon, March 17, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (Hart Van Denberg/CPRNews)

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
staff photos

Workers aren’t receiving the supplies or healthcare benefits they need to battle the new coronavirus, members of a local labor union said Tuesday.

Janitors, airport workers, flight attendants and firefighters said they need more from either their employers, the federal government or both.

Yuliana Guerrero doesn’t have health insurance. She’s worried about getting COVID-19 and bringing it home to her family — and not getting paid while she’s home sick. The professional cleaner who works in the Denver area said she and her coworkers don’t have enough gloves or masks to guard themselves from the virus or the stronger chemicals they now use to clean buildings.

“They hurt our eyes just because the fumes are so strong,” Guerrero told Denverite through an interpreter. “And gloves are also very important because we are constantly wiping down areas that people are touching with their hands. When we’re changing out the garbage bags, people leave food residue on it, they might spit in it. And we clean bathrooms as well. We need the gloves.”

Both her company, which she did not want to name, and the properties it cleans are responsible for providing safety equipment, Guerrero said. She said the problem is industry-wide.

Over at Denver International Airport, Berhanu Ayele’s job is to wheel older, at-risk passengers to and from their gates. No coordinated protocol for disinfecting the wheelchairs — which are sometimes shared between companies — exists, he said.

Ayele praised DIA’s overall response to the virus. But he works for a private company, which he did not want to name, that contracts with Southwest Airlines. It’s not just a lack of cleaning supplies for the wheelchairs, he said. It’s a lack of a plan and a lack of cooperation between his company and others.

“They must work together,” Ayele told Denverite. “I mean the whole airport is just one community. There needs to be coordination and connection with each other. This is not happening.”

A Southwest spokesperson would not comment on any company’s protocol, but said the airline is “working with all vendors to increase the detailed cleaning of shared spaces and items for which we have oversight.”

Ayele said he’s more worried about the clients he wheels around than himself, even though he has no insurance. They’re more likely to get really sick, he said.

Jimmy Allen, an Aurora firefighter who represents 5,000 workers with the Colorado Professional Firefighters, said he and his coworkers across the state are short on supplies and paid sick leave.

Firefighters respond to public health calls all the time, not just fires. They need protective masks, gowns, oxygen and albuterol treatments. But they don’t have enough of those things for every call, Allen said.

“We have enough for a few calls maybe, but now we have to pick and choose what calls we’re going to wear our protective measures on,” Allen said. “The supplies should just be endless.”

He also called for more direction from national and state officials to allow firefighters to call off sick before they test positive for COVID-19. Tests are reserved for at-risk populations.

“Emergencies are going to happen. We understand this. We will still continue to respond, but we don’t want to make the public at any larger risk,” Allen said.

During an online press conference, these and other workers stood behind a call by the SEIU Local 105 labor union leader Ron Ruggiero for a “people’s bailout,” more paid sick leave and stronger healthcare coverage.

“The COVID-19 outbreak across this country is exposing the deep flaws in the low-wage economy, and those flaws make all of us more vulnerable in normal times, and they certainly are put into stark relief in a crisis such as this,” Ruggiero said. “We need workers to be protected at work as much as possible, from contracting this virus and also from the economic fallout.”

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