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I risk COVID-19 to clean downtown offices. What’s Congress doing for people like me?

We need essential pay, personal protective equipment and payroll protection.

Urszula Przybys participating in an International Women’s Day rally in 2018 outside the Thompson Center in Chicago.
Photo by SEIU Local 1

COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever that we are closely interconnected. Only by pulling together and meeting the needs of all workers — black, white, brown, immigrant, native-born — can we all get through this crisis.

Many essential workers are immigrants and people of color and it’s not an option for us to work from home or shelter in place. I face the fear and head to work every day so that others can work in a clean, sanitized space.

The public is grateful for our sacrifice, but it’s time leaders in Congress turn the gratitude for essential workers into tangible support in the next stimulus bill. We need essential pay, personal protective equipment and payroll protection.

I have been cleaning NBC Tower in downtown Chicago since 1996. I go in every evening and work late into the night to make sure everything is spotless for the next day. My work, and the work of security officers, airport workers, residential door staff and other building service workers, helps keep our society going in good times and bad.

What’s different during this global pandemic is that the stakes are much higher. We sanitize everything from top to bottom. We are using anti-viral chemicals to kill any potential virus so we can do all we can to keep people safe.

But what about our safety? We are risking everything to get to our jobs and back — not only our own health but the health of our families, children, and loved ones once we return home after work. Despite that risk, I do what I have to so I can support my family and do my part during the pandemic. I provide for my daughter and three grandchildren so I don’t have the choice to stay in the safety of my home.

I have to go to work in downtown Chicago, where more than 30,000 people have been positively tested for COVID-19 so far.

Congress has spent trillions of dollars to address this crisis, but where is the support for essential workers? We are facing layoffs, new costs and new risks. Today, our work is more difficult and more important than ever before. Our pay should reflect that added risk and responsibility.

I do worry about getting sick, but I’m also worried about losing my job. Millions of people are laid off across the country and that includes tens of thousands of my fellow building service workers here in Illinois. Now is not the time to lay off people who keep our buildings and offices clean and safe. Instead, we should be hiring enough janitors to make sure we have enough staff to clean according to Centers for Disease Control standards and to have our buildings ready to go when this crisis is over.

Things have to change. And through my union, SEIU Local 1, I know we can win the protection and pay we need because that’s what we’ve always done.

I’ve been a leader in SEIU for more than a quarter century now, since shortly after I came here from Poland. Janitors across Chicago worked together to truly transform janitorial jobs into good careers you can raise a family on — and it has made a huge impact in my life. We won fair pay and benefits — including family health care — that no one can afford to lose right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

That’s why we are calling on leaders in Congress to take their responsibility very seriously. They need to make sure this next stimulus prioritizes the health, safety and well-being of all working people, especially the ones who are putting their lives on the line.

Let me be clear: we must keep essential workers on the payroll to keep the country running, make sure people stay on their health plans, and set our economy up for a quicker recovery. PPE needs to be a top priority. And we need and deserve time and a half to compensate essential workers for the risks we are taking.

Essential workers are doing our part. It’s time for Congress to do theirs.

Urszula Przybys, a member of SEIU Local 1, lives in Chicago.

SEIU Local 1 is among several labor organizations which are investors in the Chicago Sun-Times,

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