April 27, 2021

Workers Memorial Day honors lives lost in pandemic

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
workers memorial day

‘Remember the Dead: Fight for the Living’ – Workers Memorial Day motto

In the 50 years since Workers Memorial Day was established, no year has been more wrenching than this one to take stock of all those who have lost their lives or been made ill as a result of their jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened and killed people all over the world, including many who contracted it at their place of work.

Teachers, nurses, school security and college faculty are among those who have been stricken by the virus. NYSUT has been continuously updating a memorial page of members throughout the state who lost their lives due to COVID-19.

In a report just released this week by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health to coincide with Workers Memorial Day, it is estimated that 250,000 workers in New York were infected by the coronavirus on the job. NYCOSH board member Robert Grey prepared the report.

The names, faces and stories of the NYSUT members who died from COVID-19 tell of the lives of teachers, paraprofessionals, authors, school counselors and faculty members. They include Queens members Gabrielle Gayle, just 34, United Federation of Teachers, who taught special education; and Kevin Bostic, 55, UFT, who worked in school security. Karen Johnson, 57, was a middle school special education teacher and member of the New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees. Anna Eng, 59, was a UFT school counselor in Brooklyn. Traci Simrell, Binghamton Teachers Association, 49, taught prekindergarten. High school math teacher David Olivieri, Lackawanna Teachers Federation, died at 50.

NYSUT nurses and doctors were on the frontlines immediately, joining health care workers across the country in response to the pandemic — often working without proper personal protective equipment due to a shortage.

“Our members were asked to do the unthinkable,” said Ron Gross, NYSUT vice president who oversees health and safety. “They ran into (the equivalent of) a burning building. It’s incumbent on unions to make sure it never happens again.”

AFT and NYSUT members delivered PPE to hospitals and health care facilities in New York City, where the virus took a major toll. Teachers, faculty and support staff all over the state utilized 3D printers and plastic report covers to make face shields. Campuses opened up sites for testing and later, vaccinations.

“Union members have a level of interdependency,” Gross said. “We all know we have to rely on each other.”

Fifty years ago, workers were promised the right to a safe job when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed on April 28, in large part due to the ongoing efforts and push of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the “inextricable link between workplace safety and health and our communities,” and exposed the lack of accountability and resources for OSHA.

“The role of unions historically and currently has been about health and safety on the job,” said Gross. “Now we are rethinking so many parts of how we do our job. Things we took for granted – ventilation systems — could kill us.”

Ventilation systems, he said, are “the invisible thing, unlike physically seeing a building in disrepair, or broken doors.” With a virus that is airborne, having an effective ventilation system is vital, as is contract tracing, he said.

“We still have antiquated buildings. Some were built in the Great Depression,” Gross said. Stimulus money can be used to solve multiple problems, including updating ventilation systems and making sure schools operate under appropriate temperatures.

Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist who works with local unions across the state, said “this pandemic has laid bare the reality that we need to continue to work on building the foundations needed to ensure all occupational health and safety issues are addressed adequately and in a timely manner.”

It is important that union members feel empowered to report hazards to their employers, and for employers to create a workplace free of hazards, she said.

“This is not always the case, and thus the work of the union activist begins,” Foley said.

Here's how you can commemorate Workers Memorial Day.

  • Organize an online campaign to call for stronger safety and health protections using the digital toolkit, which may be found at www.aflcio.org/WorkersMemorialDay.
  • Call for the Senate to pass the PRO Act to ensure all workers have a voice on the job.
  • Hold a virtual candlelight vigil, memorial service or moment of silence to remember those who have died on the job and to highlight job safety problems at workplaces in our community.
  • Host a phone event or webinar with members of Congress in your district.
  • Conduct virtual workshops to empower workers to report job safety hazards and exercise workplace rights. Invite union members, nonunion workers and community allies to participate.
  • Create a memorial at a workplace or in a community where workers have been killed on the job.
  • Create and share an online photo and storyboard campaign on social media to remember workers who have been killed on the job.
  • If you are working during the pandemic, organize an outdoor, socially distanced event at your workplace to stand together to protect all workers' right to a safe job, and to hold your employer accountable for keeping you safe.
  • Invite the press to your Workers Memorial Day events to increase public awareness of the dangers working people face on the job.
  • Come together in person once this pandemic is over. As a labor movement, we Mourn for the Dead and Fight for the Living on April 28, and every day of the year.