Essential Workers Anxious: Risk Amid COVID-19
By Dianne Anderson
Trevon Harris, a local Emergency Medical Technician and LVN, can legally break the speed limit and run red lights if he has to as an ambulance driver.
But when he reaches his destination, his new normal is hurry up and wait.
He’s usually stalled for an hour or more in back of all the other ambulances also waiting on call at the hospitals ever since COVID-19.
Calls are heavier now with respiratory crises, yet only those with the highest crisis get quickly in the door. Inside his ambulance, the paramedics tend to their patients.
“They’re making us wait in the ambulance until they can figure out where they want to put us,” he said. “We’ve been sitting here an hour with a patient in the back with respiratory problems because of the COVID thing.”
After they transport a positive patient, they drive the ambulance back to the base, and use a special fogging machine to help kill the contagion.
Besides the N95 masks and gloves up for every single dispatch, they need to put on a full gown and goggles before patient contact with any COVID-19, respiratory-related or suspected flu symptoms.
Typically, they ask that patients be rolled out to the outside of their residence so that it can prevent the emergency workers from entering inside. If not, they roll in the gurney, but he said the hassle of the new constraints prevent them from moving as fast in the field as they need to.
While he worries about protection for himself, he is more concerned about his young child at home and an older family member.
“It poses a few new issues,” he said. “The only thing that really sucks is that a lot of essential workers are complaining especially in the field, that we don’t get any hazard pay or increase in pay. People are sitting at home right now getting more than we do.”
After 90 minutes waiting, hospital staff finally allow his patient to come in.
“Yesterday I had two coronavirus positive patients that I transported with all the classic symptoms — coughing shortness of breath. One had diarrhea body aches, vomiting,” he said. “We’re at increased risk, it’s just added stress.”
Coronavirus is also impacting essential workers like Toi Waddles, a teacher at Fontana Citrus Head Start.
She now sits with nine of her peers in a relatively tight space of a portable building, all masked and gloved up, but there is no Plexiglas or plastic protection.
Everyone realizes they need to keep socially distanced, but she worries that anyone can be asymptomatic. No one knows who is infected.
Waddles is a contracted employee San Bernadino County Preschool Services Department, not a classified employee, so she doesn’t understand why they must be on-site because the children are still at home.
In March, she said they were all totally telecommuting.
“We can still virtually meet and see them through Zoom. Why are we mandated to be at work?” she said. “When I’ve tried to ask management, they don’t know.”
In her capacity as union shop steward and an essential worker, she fights for workers’ rights. She said the employees have not received an explanation of why they can’t do their job from home.
Three years ago, Waddles led the effort to get union representation for mostly women of color spanning 38 schools. The workers now can receive better benefits with the move to union coverage.
“I’ve been public enemy number one since I brought in this union,” said Waddles, community labor organizer and member of Teamsters Local 1932.
Without adequate training for workers to return safely back to work, she is concerned about the need for new policy and language to accommodate workers facing COVID-19.
“I [understand] the private sector and the warehouses, I truly get it, but even public sector employees, we’re in danger,” she said. “There are classified employees in this county that have a salary and there are people testing positive. They are still having them to come to work.”
She fields complaints from peers who have families to go home to. Waddles also has a three-year-old son at home.
It’s a policy issue, she said, and there is no specific plan for workers to return safely to work. Last week, she said she signed paperwork to return to work, but without any training. She said there were online classes for transitional training, but the link didn’t work.