Colorado's "Essential" Workers Ask for Support Amid COVID-19 Disruption

Roughly 2,000 Denver-area postal workers are some of the many workers deemed "essential" as COVID-19 shutdowns gradually spread across the city and state.
Roughly 2,000 Denver-area postal workers are some of the many workers deemed "essential" as COVID-19 shutdowns gradually spread across the city and state. Kai Schreiber / Flickr
In his thirty years as a postal worker, Alex Aguilar has only seen the U.S. Postal Service cease operations twice — both times during snowstorms. Local branches in Colorado didn't shut down after 9/11 or during the 2001 anthrax attacks, or amid the H1N1 flu outbreak a decade ago. The Postal Service doesn't want the coronavirus pandemic to be any different, but that's easier said than done.

"What we're facing right now with this pandemic is the greatest [challenge] we've ever seen," Aguilar, president of the Denver-area branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said during a virtual press conference on Tuesday, March 24. "Right now, the letter carrier's job is all about safety."

The roughly 2,000 postal workers represented by the NALC's Branch 47 are one of many categories of "essential workers" exempt from the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders that are gradually bringing a halt to many aspects of daily life across the country. Mayor Michael Hancock has issued an order closing a wide range of non-essential businesses until at least April 10, and while Governor Jared Polis has opted for a less stringent statewide approach for now, other local governments are following Denver's lead.

Letter carriers, grocery employees, health-care professionals, transit operators and other essential workers may be less immediately concerned with how to pay their bills and put food on the table than the tens of thousands of Coloradans who've been laid off from the service and hospitality industries during the lockdown. But they've got other worries — starting with how to stay safe and healthy while performing jobs that state and local governments have deemed critically important. For letter carriers, that means closely coordinating with Postal Service management to make sure that they have the sanitary supplies and other personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.

"The Post Office is supplying them with gloves every day, and they do have masks if they would like them," Aguilar said. "They're given wipes, so they can wipe their steering wheels during the day. And each carrier is given an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer."

With so many retail outlets closed and people barred from taking unnecessary trips out of the house, home delivery is more critical than ever, and the USPS said last week it's seeking to fill hundreds of new positions in Denver and around the state. For now, postal workers are getting the supplies they need, and Aguilar praised administrators for working to secure a supply of hand sanitizer from the Mad Rabbit Distillery in Westminster, which is pivoting to manufacturing sanitizer products amid surging demand.

Not all "essential" workers have been as fortunate. Ernest Higgs, a Denver security officer and member of Service Employees International Union Local 105, said during the press conference that some security contractors have found themselves out of work when non-essential buildings or workplaces closed down, and others who remain on the job don't always have the equipment they need.

"Currently our biggest concern is making sure we have enough gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes, things of that nature," Higgs said. "We come into contact with people constantly, all day long. And right now we don't have those supplies readily at hand. We don't have masks like other industries. So it's really tough for us to try to stay safe.

"We'd like some support," he added. "It seems like the security industry is being overlooked."

Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, which represents more than 130,000 Coloradans across 180 affiliate unions, said that it's vital for employers and policy makers to prioritize the needs of workers as layoffs, supply shortages and other disruptions continue.

"The United States is going to be hit harder than nearly any other first-world country because of our porous social safety net," Dougherty said. Later this week, the AFL-CIO and other Colorado labor advocates plan to issue demands for a "COVID-19 Workers' Bill of Rights," including provisions for paid leave, safety protections, unemployment insurance and more. Dougherty also said that advocates want to see equal representation for labor voices on Polis's recently announced Economic Stabilization and Growth Council — which is mostly made up of leaders from the corporate and finance worlds.

"People's health, livelihood and ability to provide for themselves are at stake," he said. "As the governor, legislature and Congress create committees and packages to pull us out of this crisis, we must remember that workers drive the economy."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff