Essential workers tell lawmakers: Minnesotans support emergency leave

Bill Schwandt, an paraprofessional educator in the Bloomington schools, speaks at a press conference in support of emergency paid leave for essential workers.

Thousands of essential workers in Minnesota have lost hours or exhausted their paid time off after being exposed to the coronavirus over the past 15 months, while a measure that would make them whole remains caught up in Capitol gridlock.

That needs to change, according to more than 5,000 nurses, janitors, educators, child care workers and other Minnesotans who signed onto a petition in support of the Essential Workers Emergency Leave Act.

Union members delivered the petitions to Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders today after holding a press conference on the Capitol steps.

“We deserve more than nice words, pats on the back and hearty handshakes,” said Bill Schwandt, a paraprofessional in the Bloomington schools and member of Education Minnesota. “We deserve to be remembered, respected and, yes, compensated for the work that we did.”

Lawmakers are scrambling to negotiate the particulars of a $52 billion, two-year budget by the end of the month. The budget taps into federal relief funds that, as several workers pointed out, should prioritize support for essential workers, according to guidance from the Department of Treasury.

Emergency leave for time lost would help workers like Eva Lopez, a local janitor, regain their footing. Lopez is vice president of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26, which represents janitors and security guards in the Twin Cities, and she said over 1,000 members of her union have missed work to quarantine or wait for test results.

“Most don’t make enough to have big savings accounts, and we can never work from home,” Lopez said via a translator. “This year has been so hard.”

Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner, an intensive care nurse at North Memorial hospital in Robbinsdale, said members of her union have “dipped into their savings, their retirement, their 401(k)” plans to pay their bills while riding out quarantine.

The financial strain many health care workers are facing, Turner added, has only added to the stress of providing care through a crisis that has resulted in over 7,500 deaths statewide.

“We aren’t asking for a handout,” Turner said. “What we are asking for is justice.”

Turner and Troy Bowman, a Minneapolis custodian who had to quarantine twice in the last year, delivered copies of the petition to Walz, who has pledged support for the measure, and Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul), a lead author of the bill.

The DFL-controlled House included funding for emergency leave in its jobs bill last month, but Republicans in control of the Senate did not. Murphy, a registered nurse, promised to bring the petition to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s attention, and thanked essential workers for their service to Minnesota during the pandemic.

“You went to work, you took care of us, you kept us alive, you kept us healthy and you kept our economy going,” she said.

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