Security officers at some of Hartford’s largest insurance companies led elected officials and essential workers Monday in a rally for economic justice, saying many of them can’t afford health insurance even as they risk contracting the coronavirus at work.
They gathered at a union headquarters in Hartford and held a brief moment of silence for the six members of the property service workers union, 32BJ SEIU, who have died of COVID-19 in Connecticut. After an hour of speeches and chants in the sweltering heat, the workers and their supporters left in a caravan to deliver memorial candles, photos of coronavirus victims, and demands for change to the insurance and security companies they work for.
Monday’s event was held under the banner “Strike for Black Lives,” a national action organized to demand corporations and governments take an active role in racial and economic justice, from supporting reforms to end police brutality to improving economic, health and safety conditions of every worker.
The union stopped at Aetna, The Hartford and Allied Universal security, one of several security contractors that provides employees to area insurance companies and facilities like Union Station, the Wadsworth Atheneum and Bushnell Theater.
About 500 security officers in Hartford County are bargaining their first contract with those contractors and have reached an impasse with the employers on health insurance premiums.
Juan Hernandez, vice president of 32BJ SEIU and head of the union in Connecticut, said the plans being offered by the five contractors would “force workers to choose between feeding their families and protecting their health.”
“These awful proposals were wrong before, and they’re even worse now, when the nation is reeling from the coronavirus and the assault on Black lives,” he said.
Stephanie Chisem, a security officer at Aetna for 22 years, said she knows the difficulty of trying to get by on a low wage without affordable health care. She passed out at work in 2011 and struggled to pay for her ambulance ride and three-day hospitalization.
And since the pandemic started, she’s tried not to think of ways she and other black women could contract the virus as essential workers.
“We are more exposed and we live under more economic constraints. I always liked my job in protection, and protecting and offering people protection in the building,” Chisem said. “It is time that our contractors, Aetna and The Hartford defend us.”
Aetna and a spokesman for The Hartford both said the insurance companies are not party to the contract negotiations between the security guards’ union and their employers.
Aetna’s parent company, CVS Health, recently announced it would commit nearly $600 million over five years to addressing racial inequality The Hartford has said that racism has no place in society and highlighted programs like a long-standing employee initiative focused on unconscious bias.
However State Treasurer Shawn Wooden said racial justice cannot be achieved as long as Black people and others of color face inferior conditions in education, health care and work.
He said it was fitting Monday’s rally was being held outside SEIU 1/4 u2032s Martin Luther King-Leon Davis Labor Center, a place that pushes him to uphold the ideals of those and other Black civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Robert Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, who both died Friday.
“They knew back then that civil rights, that social justice is inextricably linked to economic justice and economic rights and it’s not just, ‘How do we get more people at the top to live better at the top?’ but it’s about truly creating a rising tide in our nation that lifts all boats,” Wooden said.
He and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin also urged the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to pass the proposed COVID-19 pandemic aid known as the Heroes Act, which would extend benefits for essential workers.
“We need the Senate to find its heart, we need Mitch McConnell to find his conscience and we need Donald Trump to understand he has to try, at least try to protect us from the pandemic,” Bronin said. “We are right now in the rapids that lead to the waterfall unless the Senate acts and we have o understand that corporate action matters too.”
Allied Universal did not respond to a request for comment.
Across the East Coast, 130 members of 32BJ SEIU have died from the coronavirus, according to the union.
Among them is Urbano Sifuentes of West Hartford, who died on May 16 about two months after he fell ill while working as a cleaner at Union Station in downtown Hartford. His wife and three daughters think Sifuentes caught the virus from another train station employee who died of COVID-19.
They stood with the families of other victims Monday, holding a photo from Sifuentes’ 64th birthday two years earlier, when they celebrated over lunch at LongHorn Steakhouse.
“He was looking forward to retiring,” his daughter Emily said.
Her sister, Rosemary Sifuentes , cried as the workers, elected officials and supporters around her chanted “Be fair to those who care.”
“From myself and my family, I’d like to say that the death of my father and all those workers who have suffered because of COVID-19, that their deaths are not in vain, that their voices are not silenced, that they are heard throughout the entire country,” she told the crowd in Spanish. “They need to take care of us because if that happened, my father and all those essential workers who passed away would be here with us today.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at [email protected].
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