Gerardo Cajamarca stands in front of a worker solidarity mural inside the SEIU Local 26 member resource center in Northeast Minneapolis. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Alma Bonilla lives in Bloomington with her husband, two young children, and her mother, but the past year has brought a kind of intruder into their home: the fear of COVID-19. As a cleaner at Minneapolis City Center, the downtown shopping mall, Bonilla would constantly sanitize surfaces at work and at home to keep her elderly mother safe.

“What I was afraid of most was that we would bring the sickness home,” Bonilla said in Spanish, in a translated interview with Sahan Journal. “In the end, that’s what happened.”

A few months into the pandemic, both Bonilla and her husband got COVID-19 and her mother also fell ill. While Bonilla’s children didn’t show symptoms, she feared they were also carrying the coronavirus.

Almost one year since the pandemic hit Minnesota, Bonilla shared her story at a global forum organized by her local union, the Service Employees International Union Local 26. Frontline workers from China, Malaysia, and Colombia echoed the concerns voiced by Bonilla and other members of SEIU Local 26. 

At first, they needed more personal protective equipment. Now, SEIU in Minnesota is pushing the state legislature to pass a bill that would provide emergency pay for frontline workers who have to take two weeks off to quarantine. 

Efforts have varied across the different unions. But wherever the workers on the call came from, they all agreed—they haven’t caught a break this year.

During the forum, workers discussed what it’s been like to organize under different political conditions. Sahan Journal followed up with workers in Minnesota after the forum to learn about the state of the cleaning industry one year into the pandemic. 

Gerardo Cajamarca is an SEIU Local 26 organizer who has helped fundraise for janitors, security officers, airport workers, and other union members. So far, he said, the union has tapped into its strike fund to provide $300 to members who have missed work while quarantining after coronavirus exposures.

“The pandemic uncovered these issues that have been there for a while,” Cajamarca said. “Now you can see them more clearly—here in the U.S. or any part of the world.”

Who will tell coworkers they’ve been exposed to coronavirus? 

About 60 people from four different countries joined the February 24 Zoom call. Lausan Collective, a group of writers, translators, artists, and organizers from Hong Kong, connected union members worldwide to exchange support during the pandemic.* This forum included SEIU members from Minnesota, some of whom are immigrants from other countries, too. Bonilla, for example, is an immigrant from El Salvador.

The call featured English, Spanish, Chinese, Cantonese and Malay interpreters simultaneously translating the stories of cleaning workers from a variety of backgrounds.* Though the narratives unfolded in different languages, the stories felt familiar to other participants on the call. 

The unions all said they struggled to get sufficient PPE, like masks and gloves, for their members. The PPE supply has improved in Minnesota. But in the virtual forum, Bonilla described a lack of information about potential coronavirus exposure at work.

In a later interview with Sahan Journal, Bonilla detailed her experience with COVID-19. After she got sick, she called her coworkers to tell them that they might have been exposed. Next, she said, human resources for Marsden Services, which supplies the City Center with its cleaning staff, called Bonilla and told her she wasn’t allowed to do that. 

“Essential workers are considered angels and heroes. Frontline workers don’t need beautiful words; they need justice.”

Gerardo Cajamarca, SEIU LOcal 26

Bonilla said she felt intimidated. But she added that it was important for the staff to know that they might have been exposed.

According to a spokesperson from Marsden Services, human resources would rather communicate potential exposure to employees clearly and directly. That way, the company can minimize any confusion. Marsden Services also says it has established quarantine periods and return-to-work policies for any employee who has been exposed to COVID-19 or has tested positive. 

Bonilla added that some employees felt obligated to come into work despite being sick. They believed they would lose their jobs if they didn’t. Other union members on the call agreed.

“The essential workers are considered angels and heroes,” Cajamarca told Sahan Journal in an interview translated from Spanish. “Frontline workers don’t need beautiful words; they need justice.”

Getting sick means going without a paycheck

Martin Amariles from the National Union of Food Workers in Colombia said a lot of union members are currently sick in the hospital with COVID-19. Because they can’t work, they can’t get paid either. 

“If they got COVID, they were sent home without pay,” Amariles said. He added that employees had to use their vacation time to quarantine and were not receiving short-term disability pay. “At the end, they were struggling to make ends meet.”

On top of that, Amariles raised concerns about union organizers in Colombia who in recent years have been killed or kidnapped. Many organizers have fled the country seeking asylum elsewhere.

Cajamarca is one of them. He’s been living in the United states as a political asylum seeker since 2004. Almost 2,000 union members had been killed in the time before Cajamarca fled to the United States, and he said the union member base in Colombia continues to dwindle. His fight is about more than asking for masks, gloves, or COVID-19 notifications in the workplace, Cajamarca said.

“If there are no unions, how will we defend our rights?” Cajamarca said. “This takes us to a deeper crisis.”

Smaller paychecks in the U.S., bigger needs from family back home

In Minnesota, Cajamarca said four SEIU Local 26 members have died of COVID-19 so far, and 780 members have contracted the virus—this from a membership of 8,000. 

“We speak more than six languages,” Cajamarca said of the local union. “When our members are working, they’re afraid of what might happen in the workplace. But they also fear for their motherland.”

Cajamarca said that immigrant workers not only struggle to support their families here, but family members sometimes depend on them for financial support. With the economic strain of the pandemic reaching all corners of the world, the need to send money home has increased.

Despite economic issues during the pandemic, vaccines have provided some hope. But Bonilla added that she’s concerned about how effectively vaccines are circulating abroad. One of her relatives in El Salvador is a nurse, and she’s only now about to get the first dose.

During the virtual forum, Yee Shan, a representative from the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services in Malaysia said she wanted to offer some good news to the group. 

According to Shan, frontline workers were slated to be the first group to receive the vaccine, but hospital cleaners weren’t in line for vaccines.

Earlier that day, however, the Malaysian government announced a change in policy: Now, hospital cleaners will also receive the first batch of vaccines. Smiles and silent claps spread across the boxes on the Zoom call.

*Correction and clarification: An earlier version of this article misidentified the original organization who hosted the virtual forum. Lausan Collective organized the event to bring multiple unions together, including SEIU Local 26. The article has also been changed to note all of the languages spoken during the Zoom event.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.