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Pandemic ‘monumentally worse’ than 2008 financial crisis: out-of-work United Center worker

Stagehands, custodial workers, pharmacists describe the struggles of putting food on the table — and staying safe — during the coronavirus outbreak.

Keith Prisco
Keith Prisco, 53, a United Center stage hand, endured the 2008 financial crisis. On Thursday, he described the economic impacts of the coronavirus as “monumentally worse.”
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During the 2008 financial crisis, Keith Prisco found enough sporadic work to keep the “wolves from the door,” but it still took him years to recover.

“This pandemic is monumentally worse,” said Prisco, 53, a union stagehand at the United Center.

The citywide shutdown has left Prisco without work, he told reporters during a news conference Thursday arranged by the Chicago Federation of Labor to highlight the plight of workers in the city and Cook County — many of whom have, like Prisco, lost their jobs, while others risk a coronavirus infection by simply showing up for work.

“We know the impacts of this crisis are being felt most acutely by the working women and men of Chicago and Cook County,” said Bob Reiter, CFL president. “The rank and file members are losing hours, risking their safety and sacrificing every day for this city.”

The CFL, an association of nearly 300 labor groups, has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Reiter said that while he’s heartened by the passage of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill — in particular, the cash heading to families — he said more needs to be done.

Not included in the bill, Reiter noted, is health insurance support for contract workers facing dwindling hours on the job.

“Too many workers have seen their health care threatened because they cannot work enough hours to continue to qualify for health insurance under multi-employer plans ... ,” he said. “Workers should not have to choose between paying their mortgage and paying for healthcare.”

Health care is very much on Prisco’s mind these days. He was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, and travels monthly to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a treatment that “helps me stay out of the hospital.”

“My health benefits depend on how much I work each year,” he said. “If I’m unemployed for too long, I could have a reduction or loss of health coverage for me and my family.”

He said he’s been forced to hunt around in his garage for things he could sell to help make ends meet.

Michael Trnka, a Jewel-Osco pharmacist, said that while he and others in his industry continue to show up for work, “not enough is being done to protect us.” He noted a shortage of hand sanitizer and that appropriate face masks weren’t available, among other things.

“As late as last week, pharmacists were being told that it’s unprofessional to wear masks while vaccinating patients in small, closed rooms,” Trnka said.

He said his union, Teamsters Local 727, had successfully fought to have Jewel-Osco install “sneeze guards” in the pharmacy.

“We serve the public in their time of need,” he said. “By disregarding proper sanitation and safety measures ... we are put in harm’s way, and through this, we risk our health, our family’s health and the public’s health.”

In a statement, Jewel-Osco said the “health and well-being” of its associates and customers is a “top priority” and that steps have been taken to protect both during the pandemic.

“Associates can choose to wear masks and gloves while performing their duties. We are also encouraging them to follow CDC recommendations to keep themselves and loved ones healthy,” the statement reads.

“We have installed Plexiglass Sneeze Guards at all registers, service desks, pharmacy check stands and Starbucks terminals. We have also posted social distancing signage... and placed floor tape near our fresh departments, check-out lanes, pharmacy and customer service desk. Additionally, Jewel-Osco has enhanced measures to clean and disinfect all departments, restrooms, and other high-touch points of the store throughout the day, as well as a deep cleanse at the end of each business day. Cart wipes and hand sanitizer stations continue to be available at key locations within the store and pharmacy for our customers convenience.”