Confined to a bedroom in her Miami Gardens home, Lavonia Darby laments some of the moments COVID-19 has stolen over the course of her long illness.
If she weren’t sick, she would have been more hands-on with her son as he prepared to leave for college. She’d be having movie nights with her daughters, cooking dinners with them, and sitting at the table to talk about their days. Instead, she has been locked in her room for more than a month, hoping to keep the virus from spreading to her family.
While she waits for the results of her most recent COVID-19 test, the clock is ticking for her return to work as a subcontracted security officer at Miami International Airport. Not having paid sick leave has taken a financial toll.
“It has become very stressful, being out of work and not having the funds to take care of your household,” Darby says. “I try not to let it overwhelm me, because then it creates more problems.”
Darby and other subcontracted security officers, with the backing of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, are calling on Miami-Dade commissioners to introduce emergency legislation that would give county contractors annual paid sick leave.
In May, commissioners rejected a proposal sponsored by Daniella Levine Cava that would have required companies contracted by the county to provide employees with seven days’ paid sick leave per year. Two members of the commission, Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Rebeca Sosa, said the proposal amounted to government intrusion on private businesses and likened it to communism. (Both Levine Cava and Bovo were running for county mayor in yesterday’s election.)
“In countries like Nicaragua, and in Venezuela, and in Cuba, these are the kinds of policies that they begin to implement,” Bovo said at the time. “And people leave those countries because government then puts their foot on everybody’s throat. It’s ridiculous that we continue to entertain these kinds of policies. And, sadly, we paint them in different terms, we glorify them, we give it a spit-shine and call it a fancy name.”
But many workers find themselves in a tough spot when they don’t have paid sick days, yet public-health authorities and other government officials are advising people to stay home if they’re feeling unwell. Darby says that under normal circumstances, she used to show up to work even if she was feeling sick so she wouldn’t have to miss a paycheck. But she believes she contracted the virus from other people who showed up sick to work, and she didn’t want to perpetuate the risk.
“If you have more people taking this virus more seriously than they are, then you will have less of this virus spreading,” she says.
Henrique Lopez, a retired Army veteran and a security officer who guards the Metrorail, says he worries about exposure to COVID-19 every day, especially as people have started going back to work and using public transit more. Lopez says security officers have become enforcers of local laws governing masks and social distancing.
“Sometimes we have to escort people out because they don’t want to follow the laws, and they become violent,” Lopez says. “People have become aggressive. The danger is when they get close to you and scream at you without a mask on. One time, someone got mad and spit in my direction.”
One of his coworkers came down with COVID-19 and died recently. Lopez says he worries about exposing his wife and kids to the virus, but he needs to work. Having a few days of paid sick leave, he says, would be a small safety net for subcontracted workers.
“If we get paid sick days approved, we won’t have the risk of needing to go to work sick out of necessity,” Lopez says. “We won’t expose our coworkers or the public.”
Darby, frustrated with county leaders for not approving the paid sick leave legislation, says she wishes they would think beyond politics.
“If this was your family and your loved ones, what would you do?” she says. “‘Cause for some people, it hasn’t hit them yet. Some people don’t realize how bad it can be because their family is good. But once it hits home, their attitude changes.”
In June, the security officers’ union endorsed Levine Cava for mayor of Miami-Dade County.
Ana Tinsly, a spokesperson for Local 32BJ, says that although the paid sick leave legislation failed, she hopes that — after today’s election — a more progressive commission will reintroduce the proposal and vote to approve it. The union regularly holds protests to draw attention to the plight of service workers in Miami-Dade. Tinsly says that won’t stop.
“We’re gonna continue to fight until this passes,” she says.