‘Back to business as usual isn’t going to cut it:’ Groups demand better pay, protections for front-line workers during pandemic

A new coalition of community groups is calling for sweeping policy changes to ensure pandemic recovery efforts focus on working-class neighborhoods.

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More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

More than one hundred protesters in their cars and on their bikes convened downtown Thursday afternoon to demand more protective equipment and hazard pay for front-line workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters also called on elected officials to tailor relief efforts for majority black and Latino areas of the city as those neighborhoods have suffered the greatest job losses and highest COVID-19 infections during the pandemic.

“Black and brown communities have been disinvested for years in Chicago —this isn’t news to anyone —but these neighborhoods during the pandemic are thehardest hit, and going back to business as usual isn’t going to cut it,” said Candis Castillo, a board member of United Working Families, a political organization that organized Thursday’s protest with dozens of community groups that came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

The coalition is calling for broader policy changes across the board, including universal health care, a pause on immigration raids and deportations, 20 days paid emergency leave, free grocery and medicine deliveries for seniors and people with disabilities, and a rent and mortgage moratorium until the pandemic subsides.

Rafael Cervantes, 72, of Little Village, protests against Hilco near the site of the closed Crawford power plant near West 33rd Street and South Pulaski Road, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. The subcontractor demolished a smokestack at the plant last month, bringing a giant plume of dust to the neighborhood, making it difficult to breathe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rafael Cervantes, 72, of Little Village, protests against Hilco near the site of the closed Crawford power plant near West 33rd Street and South Pulaski Road, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. The subcontractor demolished a smokestack at the plant last month, bringing a giant plume of dust to the neighborhood, making it difficult to breathe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Many local groups held smaller protests across the city before caravanning downtown.

In Little Village —which has recorded more cases of COVID-19 than any other neighborhood in Chicago —residents convened near the shuttered Crawford coal power plant, where the recent botched demolition of a 95-year-old smokestack heightened concerns over poor air quality that has hurt the working-class community for decades.

The city said the dust did not contain asbestos or high levels of other dangerous pollutants. And earlier this week, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its subcontractors for failing to “take adequate precautions to minimize the dispersion of particulate matter from the felling of the smokestack.”

But some Little Village residents want Mayor Lori Lightfoot to scrap Hilco’s plans to redevelop the site into a 1-million-square-foot distribution center, which would bring in hundreds of high-polluting sixteen-wheelers through the neighborhood a day. Protesters also called for the city to rescind the nearly $19.7 million in tax subsidies for the project.

“We’ve lived through so many injustices inflicted on our community. And now to make matters worse, we have to live through a pandemic [and] Hilco. The difference is that we can stop Hilco right now,” said Esmeralda Hernandez, a longtime Little Village resident.

In a statement, Lightfoot’s office said it will continue to monitor the air quality around the site and is in the process of reviewing its demolition protocols “to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”

More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

At the Congressman George W. Collins Apartments, a public housing complex on the Near West Side, seniors protested for better living conditions and sanitary equipment to keep themselves safe from catching COVID-19.

“I’m beginning to hear more ambulances coming,” said Davetta Brooks, 75, a George Collins resident and a member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. “I don’t know if it’s for the coronavirus, but the fear, you can almost cut it, you can feel it.”

Brooks said the complex’s management company, WinnCompanies, isn’t providing personal protective equipment to staff or residents. Brooks also wants WinnCompanies to provide a social worker to help senior residents access public resources during the pandemic.

“I know 90-year-old residents who’ve had to come and go from the Social Security office because they forgot something or didn’t fill out something correctly. That’s dangerous right now, and a social worker could really help us with that,” Brooks said.

In a statement, a spokesman for WinnCompanies said it “appreciates residents’ frustration during this crisis” and that the company has “not been able to source enough masks to maintain a reliable supply” for residents and staff.

Davetta Brooks (left) and two other residents at the Congressman George W. Collins Apartments on the Near West Side protest outside the building as part of the Right to Recovery coalition, May 7, 2020.

Davetta Brooks (left) and two fellow residents of the Congressman George W. Collins Apartments on the Near West Side protest outside the building as part of the Right to Recovery coalition, May 7, 2020.

Provided

Some of the protesters out honking their horns Thursday are newly unemployed, having lost their jobs in the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic.

Tim Langston, 59, worked as an accountant at a downtown law firm for 27 years but was let go earlier this month after being furloughed in April. Throughout that time, Langston was an active member of Northside Action for Justice, an activist group based in Uptown.

But with years left of his mortgage and his wife in chemotherapy, Langston’s fight for social justice has turned personal.

“I was in a more comfortable position than a lot of people, and now my comfort level has shifted sharply,” he said. “I’m facing some very difficult decisions.”

More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

More than a hundred vehicles circle City Hall and the Thompson Center in the Loop as protesters honk their horns and rally for a range of issues, such as universal health care and immigration reform, during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday afternoon, May 7, 2020. United Working Families organized the protest with dozens of community groups, which came together as the Right to Recovery Coalition.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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