City workers take to streets to demand more protection

Caravan protest held hour before Mayor London Breed announces major acquisition of equipment to safeguard against COVID-19 transmission

Mayor London Breed announced the acquisition of 15 million pieces of personal protective equipment for The City on Friday just an hour after a union representing city workers led a protest, seeking better protection from exposure to the coronavirus.

Earlier in the day, about 75 drivers honked their way from the downtown REI store to the San Francisco Emergency Operations Center in a socially distanced union rally calling for The City to provide personal protective equipment to frontline workers and universal testing for city residents.

Representing more than 60,000 employees in local governments, nonprofit organizations, health care programs and schools across Northern California, SEIU Local 1021 wants city leaders to distribute masks and equipment to frontline workers, as more and more city workers take on new roles in helping with The City’s response to COVID-19. The union is working with The City to identify PPE reserves from other industries and redistribute them to frontline workers, said Theresa Rutherford, Local 1021 vice president and a Laguna Honda Certified Nursing Assistant.

“We are caring for the sick, supporting San Francisco’s seniors, children and vulnerable populations, and helping people get where they need to go,” Rutherford said in a statement. “Adequate PPE keeps us safer. Universal testing is needed to figure out where the virus is and where it is going, who has fought it off, and whether the San Francisco residents are gaining immunity.”

Union representatives said that the Mayor’s announcement was welcome news and thought it came as a result of their advocacy.

“I’m glad the mayor heard our plea for more PPE,” said Carlos Rivera, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1021, after the briefing where Breed made the announcement.

Breed expressed gratitude to the heath-care community, the state government and the private companies that provided equipment. She lambasted a lack of a coordinated response from the federal government.

“The sad reality is what we’ve had to deal with around a lack of coordination on the federal level around PPE has made it really very challenging,” Breed said, noting that such equipment is also important to reopen The City. “The fact that during the height of this pandemic, we’re still having a conversation about PPE really does blow my mind, and nothing has been more frustrating.”

She said suppliers in China had diverted orders intended for San Francisco, and FEMA had done the same for orders that already went through customs. She said sometimes PPE would pass customs but then get placed on the market for the highest bidder, “putting cities against cities and states against states.”

From library workers to parking attendants, many city workers are filling emergency roles like those of translators and contact-tracers to stem the spread of the virus. Chela Lucas, an SEIU officer who managed the Golden Gate Valley public library before its closure, spoke of her concerns for the safety of the 75 librarians currently staffing the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

“We want to ensure all residents of San Francisco… the people out of work that we are serving at the food bank … that their food comes to them safe and healthy — that we’re not jeopardizing the health of people in San Francisco,” Lucas said.

Local 1021 is making these demands following San Francisco’s expansion of coronavirus testing to symptomatic essential workers and residents beginning April 22. Recognizing the increase in testing, the union is calling for San Francisco “to lead the nation” by making testing universally available to city residents.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who attended the rally, said his office stood by the workers in their demand to have essential workers obtain appropriate equipment.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who recently introduced a resolution to universally test staff at homeless services providers and secured 20,000 masks for frontline workers, said the need to test asymptomatic staff should be extended to frontline workers. However, while he added that while he supports the union’s demands, he doesn’t think The City currently has the capacity to provide universal testing.

“Our frontline workers are putting their health on the line every day, and need and deserve basic protections like adequate protective equipment and universal access to testing,” Haney said.

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