PPF-PA Member and custodial worker reflects on pandemic working conditions and organizing for our survival

By Chris, PPF-PA Member

I am a custodian at a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and therefore, I am an essential worker. I work in the residential dorms. It’s hard to put this whole year into order, so much has happened. So many of my coworkers came down with Covid-19. Some were very ill, and are still suffering the repercussions. Others bounced back ok. Some lost family members. Many of my immigrant coworkers can no longer send money back home because of the inhumane policies of the U.S. ruling class towards their countries of origin.

It’s hard to say what all the impacts have been on the workers at the college, because the institution has not bothered to keep track. Although there is a system for regular Covid-19 testing of students and faculty, testing for our department has been sporadic and random. It’s almost like every now and then they pull a name out of a hat. The college, which constantly touts their “diversity & inclusion,” does not include custodial staff on the online Covid-19 Dashboard they put out to track daily cases, despite the fact that custodial and trades staff are the workers who have been on campus daily throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, the custodial department is the most diverse on campus, employing people from Cuba, Nepal, Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic & the U.S. But to the college administration, diversity & inclusion is all about the show, the facade. 

The list of grievances about how the college has mistreated workers during Covid-19 is long. In January 2020, students were arriving back to campus from all over the country and internationally. After we custodians had already been back in the student dorms, the local paper printed an article about our school having students in quarantine and using special bathrooms in the dorms. This was news to us. The administration showed blatant disregard for the custodians by not communicating with us directly about any Covid-19 protocol for returning students or safety concerns for staff, and even now we continue to get important information that is relevant to our jobs and safety after the fact.

Every once in a while some senior staff and a human resources person will call a meeting with the custodial department.  Most of the senior staff don’t even come to these meetings in person, while we go to work on campus every day. They call in over zoom and are projected up on a huge screen, looming down upon us. These meetings are supposed to be an opportunity for us to explain what’s going on in our department and to raise important issues like, “Why were our healthcare contributions raised in the middle of a pandemic? My co-pays on my meds have doubled and my doctor visits too!” or, “What happened to the sliding scale health care contributions system that we were told was being considered?” But we only get insufficient answers, or no answers, and are left in the dark. It is not a transparent, participatory, or equitable process, like the ones we have in PPF-PA, built on the foundation of our human rights principles.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get by on what I earn where I live because our city is in the middle of another kind of pandemic: gentrification. If my landlord chooses to jump on this train and raise my rent, there will be nowhere I could possibly afford to move in my community. I still have a job and I am thankful for that. I actually like my job. I like physical labor. What I don’t like is feeling like I don’t matter, like I’m disposable. Not important enough to be included in the conversation about issues that affect my life and my safety.

They show us we are disposable to them by denying us hazard pay for working on campus while everyone else stays home. I even called Governor Wolf’s office to confirm that we should be eligible for hazard pay, but Human Resources has still ignored my questions. To make matters worse, I’m on a wage freeze. They stopped our retirement contributions. When we went in to work over the winter holiday to clean the dorms while the students were away, the college had turned off the heat in the buildings because “no one” was there. We are there! We are someone. We were trying to work and we were freezing. Another time, when the school was shut down for snow, the boss asked me to go in because I live within walking distance. When I saw my paycheck, those hours were paid as straight-time, not overtime. I questioned Human Resources through email, and they said “Ask your supervisor.” His answer? ”This is the way it’s done.” We have no meaningful way to address these issues. Whenever we raise questions or grievances, the boss says things like,”We have to be careful, they could outsource us.” 

And the response of the college to the Black Lives Matter protests this year?  Embarrassing. They rebranded the campus police by getting new uniforms for Police & Safety Officers, and posted an article on their website calling it “Friendlier Look”. Meanwhile, the custodial staff were not given uniforms this year, with no explanation of course. These are the repeated slights that add up, and that make you ask, “Do their words match their behaviors?” No, not the powers that be at this college.

The good news is, I found Put People First! PA. Being part of this organization is helping me to channel my anger and energy and to focus on solutions. It’s opening my mind to different ways of thinking, to ask questions like “Where do we go beyond the protest?” All my life I’ve been out there in the streets raising hell all over this country, but I haven’t seen real change or felt part of something lasting. I’m coming to understand that you have to get organized, that it is the collective that will bring any lasting change.

I’m still not completely sure how this all works, but I am learning. And I am excited for that! I welcome the political education that is so central to everything PPF-PA does. Sometimes it can be painful when illusions are shattered, but I want truth. I recently joined the statewide Projects of Survival team, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to join that team. We will be studying the history of several mutual aid groups to get a clearer understanding of what works: how we can organize and build our movement by helping people with their immediate needs, while at the same time inviting them to join us in fighting to change the system that keeps us in need. This will help us all the most in the long run, and this is what Put People First! PA is all about.

PPF-PA Member Tammy Rojas Reflects on Covid-19 illness, longterm symptoms, and barriers to Covid-19 testing and care

By Tammy Rojas, PPF-PA Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee

I contracted Covid-19 the end of January 2021 and the lasting health effects make it extremely difficult to do the simplest of the day to day tasks. I’m still experiencing fatigue, inflammation in the chest which causes chest and back pain, trouble breathing with the slightest exertion and COVID brain fog which is affecting me in a variety of ways. I find myself feeling wiped out just doing simple tasks like cleaning the cats’ litter box, cleaning the toilet or gathering trash. Walking up and down the steps in my apartment building causes me great pain, exhaustion, and causes my heart to overwork and takes my breath away. 

The COVID brain fog has me experiencing depression symptoms, trouble thinking deeply, forgetfulness, getting my thoughts to come out in words or phrases that make sense to others and the oddest part is I don’t feel the sensations of hunger, thirst or even feeling full. So I have to be really on point that I’m not eating too little or too much.. Covid-19 affects everyone differently and for many the symptoms linger on. It’s been over a month for me since I was exposed/experienced the first symptom and I’m still having symptoms. On top of struggling with these lasting symptoms I have to fight with healthcare profiteer Penn Medicine to demand the care I need. 

My struggle with Penn Medicine began the moment I reached out on January 24, 2021, about experiencing the first COVID symptom, the loss of taste and smell. Communications with them, about getting a Covid-19 test, went back and forth for a few days, until I started becoming really sick and didn’t have the energy to fight with them anymore. I reached out again, once severe symptoms passed, about February 9th, to once again request a test for Covid-19 because I had all the symptoms and someone I was in contact with tested positive and my partner and roommate were both sick. My family doctors office, Penn Medicine, were still reluctant to give me a test and were not going to treat me for COVID until I had a positive test result. After two days of getting the runaround I decided to look elsewhere for a test. I went for my test Friday February 11th at CVS and received my results Sunday February 14th, POSITIVE for COVID! 

I have since been to see my Penn Medicine family doctor and they have reluctantly acknowledged that I do in fact have Covid-19 and lingering symptoms that could go on for weeks and the “care” they are offering is minimal. 

At that visit they decided I should do follow up visits periodically to see if symptoms had improved after  4-6 weeks from a positive test result.  I’m past that point and I’m STILL experiencing covid symptoms, which are currently causing me serious issues that make every day tasks seem like life milestones if I can complete them. With trouble breathing, chest & back pain and a weakened heart, MAYBE Penn Medicine will now grant that I qualify for the “luxury” of getting a scan, xray and/or a specialist referral.  

On Wednesday February 24th I went into the Penn Medicine LGH Emergency Room to be seen because the chest and back pain and trouble breathing I’ve been experiencing had intensified on the days following my visit to my family doctor. I went in scared and frustrated because my concerns about my health up to this point had not been taken seriously by my provider, Penn Medicine, and I didn’t know what to expect and seeing as UPMC had closed St Joseph’s hospital I had no other choice for emergency chest pain care. Thankfully, since I was there for chest and back pain I received an EKG and X-ray, which is pretty standard ER practice when someone comes in with chest pains. The results were upsetting; it appears Covid-19 has left scarring and that scarring is causing inflammation, which is causing the pain and trouble breathing. 

Thankfully I haven’t been alone in this fight and struggle to get the healthcare services I need. I have been supported by friends in my community who relate to my healthcare struggle and other fellow members of Put People First! PA (PPF-PA). As a form of “Community Care” a member of the Healthcare Workers Team in PPF-PA joined me, via phone, for my visits with my family doctor where they helped advocate for the services I need. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this crisis if I didn’t have the support that I received from both friends in the community and my comrades in PPF-PA. 

I’m a Medicaid recipient, I don’t make Penn Medicine money, so to them I don’t matter. Instead of treating me for Covid-19 and examining me in a way to get a thorough look at how COVID has affected my body and thus overall health, i.e. the necessary medical tests that should be done, they have decided to just manage my symptoms, not treating the cause itself. I’ve been prescribed an inhaler and multiple pain medications.

This virus is NO JOKE and it’s high time the working class demands we get healthcare as a human right because hundreds of millions of us need it and tens of millions are needlessly suffering without it. 

One Year Later: PPF-PA Members Reflect on the Pandemic and the Failures of the State

On the day the United States official Covid-19 death count reached half a million, PPF-PA member Tammy Rojas posted on Facebook reflecting on the Covid-19 demands PPF-PA put forward to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf with endorsement from many other organizations at the beginning of the pandemic. As we mark the passing of one year since the coronavirus began to spread in the US, we lift up Tammy’s reflections and take stock of our experiences of the pandemic, both personally and collectively. Over the next few weeks, the PPF-PA Media & Communications team will post stories about the impacts of the pandemic from PPF-PA members as we reaffirm our demands, recommit to our organizing work and reflect on the failure of our government to meet the needs of poor and working class people during this crisis.

Click here to read our Coronavirus demands to Gov. Wolf from Spring 2020

As Tammy reflects on our unmet demands:

Seeing as the State never enacted universal testing for Covid-19, we don’t know the truth of how far this virus has spread or if folks have gotten it more than once cause you CAN get it again. 

Because corporatized hospitals have been eliminating beds and staff for decades to cut costs and have closed and sold hospitals for real estate deals to increase their profits, our hollowed-out hospital system was not prepared to meet the needs of a pandemic.

Because the State didn’t reopen closed hospitals or bring private hospitals under public control, the healthcare system didn’t have the staff or the capacity to properly tackle this virus. 

Because the State didn’t direct private companies to mass produce proper PPE for EVERYONE, tens of millions got Covid-19 and over HALF A MILLION people have died from it so far. 

Because the State didn’t expand Medicaid to everyone, the TENS OF MILLIONS who have and will contract Covid-19 are not being properly treated or examined. This is because our healthcare is at the mercy of insurance corporations and healthcare conglomerates like University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Penn Medicine, Geisinger and others across the nation, who are more concerned about profits and securing a system in which they reap the benefits than actually properly fighting back against this virus to save our lives. 

These healthcare profiteers have no desire to truly learn all they can about the virus to fight it. They just want the information that could help them use the virus to make  profits… and the icing on the cake y’all is healthcare profiteers like UPMC and Penn Medicine are the very entities that our elected officials on ALL levels of government put in charge of fighting this pandemic… with OUR labor and tax dollars. That’s the biggest slap in the face our government could give us. This pandemic has shown how healthcare is run by the same corporate class that evicts us from our houses when we can’t pay rent, keeps folks locked up while telling them to socially distance, denies us safe places for young people to get education  and why we MUST unite the poor and dispossessed and demand our basic human rights — because it is the only way the working class will survive. Join us!

We already knew in March 2020 that this oppressive system did not value the health or economic safety of poor people: we were already fighting for our lives. We already knew that no oppressor has ever oppressed everyone in society equally: People of Color, Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately forced into poverty under an economic system that was designed to exploit all of us, but keeps us in check by pitting us against each other. We already knew the connection between poverty and health disparities all too well through our lived experiences, a link that has been made even more apparent as Covid-19 has taken its deadliest toll in the poorest  communities. In March 2020, we knew the ruling class would use this crisis to reinforce the myth of scarcity, that those in power would try to balance their budgets on our backs by cutting public programs instead of taxing healthcare profiteers like UPMC. While we face the compounded crises of health, housing, job loss, education, and voter suppression, the government has used the economic crisis to continue to deny the human rights and basic protections we outlined in our demands. Meanwhile, healthcare profiteers are allowed to make record profits while more than half a million Pennsylvanians were uninsured before the pandemic, and many more have lost employer-based healthcare coverage this last year.

How many lives could have been saved if the Governor had enacted these measures to protect poor and working class Pennsylvanians? How much unnecessary suffering could have been prevented? Can you imagine just how different this cruel year could have been? Throughout this blog series, we will post stories from PPF-PA members reflecting on our pandemic experiences: our health and economic struggles this year, and the ways we are fighting back, building solidarity, supporting each other, and continuing to organize, organize, organize.

Members of the Pittsburgh Healthcare Rights Committee offer support with Medicaid and food stamps applications at a Project of Survival in collaboration with House of Manna

A little more than a year after the first Covid-19 deaths occured in the United States, we are still fighting for our lives. In 2021, we continue our struggle for healthcare as a human right as we fight for vaccine equity and access and build our campaign for a Public Healthcare Advocate in PA, a public office that would fight for the healthcare rights of all Pennsylvanians at the State level. Across PA, we are organizing Projects of Survival, supporting our communities to meet the basic needs the government has failed to address while building our collective power to uproot this violent system. We are building the Nonviolent Medicaid Army with organizations across the country and developing leaders to demand our basic needs be treated as human rights! Stay tuned as we look back at personal reflections on the pandemic, and look ahead to where we are going from here. Forward together!

Reposted from the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, January 26 2021

On November 23, 2020, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival coordinated car caravans across the country to mourn more than a quarter of a million lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States, to demand a smooth and open transition of power and to call for an urgent moral policy agenda from the new presidential administration. In 25 states and the District of Columbia, poor and dispossessed people, advocates and religious leaders gathered in masked and socially-distanced caravans to remember the lives lost and to commit to organizing in their honor for a future where everybody has a right to live.

The Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign joined this national day of remembrance in Harrisburg, with a car caravan at the State Capitol, and joining a protest led by former prisoners and family members of prisoners outside the Governor’s mansion.

👉 UPDATE January 2021: We continue to push forward the demands of poor and dispossessed people at the state and national levelwhich remain as urgent as ever under the new administration. US lives lost to COVID-19 have nearly doubled in the two months since the Day of Mourning. Nationally, the Poor People’s Campaign has put forward 14 Policy Priorities to Heal the Nation: A Moral and Economic Agenda for the First 100 Days, which already has the support of over 100 members of Congress. Stay tuned for upcoming Moral Mondays car caravan actions starting in February.

👉 We invite you to contribute a remembrance to the online Memorial Wall, a collective place to mourn and remember our friends, family members, and community members who have been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic and poverty.

👉 And please be in touch with us to get involved with the ongoing work of deepening and broadening the PA Poor People’s Campaign through working groups and organizations across the state: email pennsylvania@poorpeoplescampaign.org or fill out this involvement formForward Together, Not One Step Back!

Folks from across the state converged in Harrisburg, decorating cars and gathering at a safe distance.

Mourning in Public

Mourners came from near and far, including Allegheny, Berks, Blair, Butler, Dauphin, Lehigh, Philadelphia, Washington, and York counties, and other areas to represent the more than 5 million people in Pennsylvania who are poor or near-poor, and the 140 million people in the U.S. who are just one emergency away from being on the streets. Participants held up the national demands for a just COVID-19 relief package and called on the Pennsylvania Governor and state legislature to protect and expand policies that support poor and low-wealth people, including in the state budget and by releasing aging and vulnerable people held in the Pennsylvania prison system.

Throughout the day, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival hosted a live broadcast that brought together national faith leaders as well as participants from Moral Monday caravans across the country. We heard from veterans suffering lack of health care, immigrant leaders with family members held in ICE detention, parents demanding transparent care plans for children with disabilities, and so many people who have experienced in their families and communities the disproportionate toll this virus has taken on the lives of the poor and dispossessed. Speakers from every participating state honored the names and stories of loved ones lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave testimony to the ongoing pandemics of poverty, racism, ecological devastation and militarism that claimed precious lives long before the coronavirus crisis began and have worsened its deadly toll. Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, introduced the day by underscoring the significance of mourning in public, lifting up that to gather and grieve together is a refusal to normalize the failures of the government’s response to this public health crisis.

Since the current national leadership has not stopped to have a day of mourning and eulogy, we will do that. We say to the nation: you will not pass over these lives easily.
— Rev. Dr. William Barber II

The Moral Monday national broadcast rallied mourners to carry their grief for those who have been lost into a moral mandate for change. Rev. Dr. Theoharis reminded us,

“Out of 257,000 who have died [as of January over 400,000], 210,000 did not have to die… We will commit ourselves every day to making their memory be a blessing, a blessing on a movement that is growing in power and scope.
—Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

The organizers shared a petition to call on the president, Congress, and the president- and vice president- elect to enact a comprehensive, just COVID Relief bill now, and pointed to the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Justice Jubilee Policy Platform as the next steps and blueprint for the new administration’s first 100 days.

Thirty cars circled that Capitol building in Harrisburg for two hours, honking and drawing attention to our urgent demands.

The state budget must not be balanced on the backs of the poor and dispossessed

In Pennsylvania, mourners also tuned in to a local broadcast with the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign. Jacob Butterly, PA theomusicologist led the mourners in song and the Jubilee Justice Platform was read aloud as scores of vehicles circled the State Capitol. Signage and decorations on the cars echoed the national demands for a “Full and Just Stimulus Relief Package” on the federal level, and also focused on what Pennsylvania’s Governor and state legislature can do to end this crisis on the state level. Speakers sounded the alarm that the state budget must not be balanced on the backs of the poor and dispossessed. They called for a continued moratorium on evictions and the enactment of a budget that supports the needs of the working class in Pennsylvania, and demanded there be no cuts to Medicaid or any welfare programs. They also highlighted COVID-19 crisis within the prison system, and demanded the release of elderly and vulnerable people incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko, state co-chair of the PA Poor People’s Campaign & National Steering Committee member, speaks to the media. Lorraine Haw of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) stands by.

Pennsylvania speaks out against state violence and family separation

Pennsylvania’s testimony to the national broadcast was given by Jennina Rose Gorman, coordinator of the Altoona Healthcare Rights Committee with Put People First! PA, who spoke to the connections between forms of state violence that have put incarcerated and many other marginalized people at grave risk during the pandemic.

“I am here today because my son contracted COVID-19 in a foster care facility four hours away from me. I am here for all the families separated from loved ones whether through the child welfare system, through incarceration, or through immigrant detention. Staff who tested positive for COVID-19 cannot afford the time off and are allowed to return to work, which puts all of our loved ones in danger, and in rural PA, where I am from, the few hospitals that haven’t been closed are overflowing with COVID-19 patients.
— Jennina Gorman, PPF-PA Member

Jennina Gorman, Put People First! PA, speaking to the National broadcast.

Governor Wolf, Free the Vulnerable!

Later in the afternoon, mourners moved to the Governor’s mansion to join an action led by the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), an organization on the PA Poor People’s Campaign State Coordinating Committee, and the Abolitionist Law Center. People stood vigil in front of the mansion with signs remembering the names of over 20 incarcerated people who died from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons, and with banners calling on Governor Wolf to expand the use of his power to grant reprieves in order to release non-violent, elderly, and medically vulnerable prisoners.

The action lifted up the urgent release of Russell Maroon Shoatz, a political prisoner who has been held in PA prisons since 1970, is currently battling cancer, and has tested positive for COVID. “He is 77 years old. It is inexcusable that he is still in prison and we are asking for him to be immediately released,” said Saleem Holbrook of CADBI and the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a former juvenile lifer who won his freedom a few years ago. Saleem shone a light on the desperate situation for prisoners across the state. “Right now as we speak SCI Houtzdale has over 300 prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19. That is over half the population of the prison. And this is the senior citizens home of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.”

👉 UPDATE January 2021: The number of state prisoners who have died of COVID-19 since November has more than tripled to over 70 people. Governor Wolf and other officials continue to refuse to release vulnerable and elderly prisoners, and the state Department of Corrections is defending their policy of not always informing family members of prisoners who are sickened or killed due to COVID-19.

Outside the Governor’s mansion remembering prisoners killed by COVID-19.

Lorraine “Ms. Dee Dee” Haw, another leader with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration and the Nonviolent Medicaid Army whose son is facing life without parole, directly addressed the Governor, the state legislature, and the Department of Corrections with a list of demands to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis in the prisons.

Governor Wolf, we need you to stop worrying so much about saving breweries so that people can go out and drink. Start worrying about our insiders, who are losing their lives to COVID-19 unnecessarily.
— Lorraine Haw

She called for immediate decarceration to reduce the prison population and enable social distancing within overcrowded facilities, which could be done by prioritizing the release of elders, expediting commutations, and expanding compassionate release, parole, commutation and early release.

More than any time in our lifetime, the government’s response to COVID-19 has shown that we live in a failed state. We are here to make sure that people who are inside the prisons are not only protected, but that those that are charged with protecting them are held accountable for their failure in this moment.”
— Saleem Holbrook

Lorraine Haw, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI)
Saleem Holbrook, Abolitionist Law Center. Rally organizer Yusef Jones of CADBI looks on.

We light candles in remembrance, but also in deep commitment

At the end of the day, the National co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign led a virtual Interfaith Memorial Service. 2,500 candles were lit on the steps of National City Christian Church in Washington DC, each one representing one hundred lives lost to the coronavirus. Mourners from across the country contributed to a digital Wall of Remembrance with names and pictures of loved ones lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to the underlying pandemics of poverty, racism, ecological devastation and militarism that have taken so many lives. (You can contribute remembrances to the memorial wall here.)

We light candles in remembrance, but also in deep commitment. Because to mourn is to care deeply and to care so deeply that you seek to do something about the situations that cause the mourning in the first place.
— Rev. Dr. William Barber II

👉 Please be in touch with us to get involved with the ongoing work of deepening and broadening the PA Poor People’s Campaign through working groups and organizations across the state: email pennsylvania@poorpeoplescampaign.org or fill out this involvement formForward Together, Not One Step Back!