NEW YORK — Looking back on the past year, through some of the darkest and difficult moments of their careers, CSEA members went above and beyond the call of duty, not just because they were deemed essential, but because they were truly indispensable.
When New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic last year, some CSEA Metropolitan Region members worked nearly seven days straight providing care for people living with developmental disabilities. Others made sure motorists got the licenses they needed to keep our streets and commerce moving. Some worked in health care environments where they comforted the families of those lost to COVID-19.
Throughout it all, CSEA members were not only resilient, they were resolute.
Caring for vulnerable individuals
“My experience was not the best,” said Althea Finamore, a direct support assistant at Staten Island DDSO who worked for nearly seven days straight at the start of the pandemic. “But I was not complaining because it was the situation that we were in. We could not leave. Our individuals needed us to take care of them.”
During the earliest days of the pandemic, at group homes throughout the New York City area, staff and individuals experienced high rates of infection and workers often had no choice but to work multiple shifts as they observed quarantines.
“It’s very depressing when you are working around people who are so sick and there’s nothing you can do for them,” said Finamore.
Yet, Finamore and her co-workers did all they could to nurture and heal the individuals in their care.
Their union local bought and sent workers uniforms, soaps, toothbrushes and other essentials. Local officers also sent food and provided workers with handmade masks due to an initial difficulty in obtaining PPE.
“CSEA members became very essential. The individuals looked toward the staff for their care and we provided it for them,” said Edwin Karnley, a direct support professional at Staten Island DDSO.
Hospital workers rose to the occasion
At SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Marchon Saunders was about to begin a new position when her department was converted into an ICU unit.
“Everyone was scared, but we realized that is was our duty to help and save lives,” said Saunders, now a unit clerk in the Post Intervention Recovery Room. “After the initial shock, people just rose to the occasion.”
Soon after the state designated SUNY Downstate as a COVID-19 only facility, the death toll started to rise.
“It was hard because it was people from our community,” said Saunders. “These were people that I probably knew or met and I would think that I would probably never see them again.”
Since patients were not allowed visitors, Saunders and her co-workers would often help to console families and serve as their liaison.
She recalled the devastating loss of a husband and wife just minutes apart. Instead of pain, however, their family was comforted knowing that the high school sweethearts, who were married nearly 40 years, transitioned together.
“That’s what was holding the family together,” said Saunders. “Knowing that mom and dad, after all these years, couldn’t be without each other.”
Since the pandemic began, Saunders has taken all precautions to avoid becoming infected. She was also among the first to get the vaccine.
“I just knew if there was a vaccine that I was going to take it. There was no question,” said Saunders. “In the environment I’m in, I’m aware of medicine and the science behind the medicine.”
DMV workers have seen safety improvements
At the Springfield Gardens DMV office, the customer lines to get services are nonstop in this busy Queens neighborhood. CSEA members like Cyralene Cadogan-Lorquet, a motor vehicle representative, remembered how vulnerable workers there felt when COVID-19 first broke out and their offices remained open. DMV operations were eventually closed in late March, but workers were left wondering if lives could have been saved if they had done it sooner.
Today, DMV offices are back open and are better equipped to handle crowds, require appointments and have safety partitions installed.
Now, Cadogan-Lorquet said she’s looking forward to getting her vaccine in mid-April because she can’t wait to dote on her 86-year-old mother. “My mom is taken care of like a queen.”
Union members thankful for support
Throughout the pandemic, many members have expressed their appreciation to CSEA for the union’s ongoing support. From providing PPE, fighting for additional overtime pay and coordinating virtual town halls, CSEA staff, officers and activists all came together to support members and families.
“Kudos to CSEA, our local and President [Mary E.] Sullivan,” said Karnley. “Thank you for making sure the workers are being taken care of.”
— David Galarza