Courage Against COVID-19: Members Face Down a Deadly Virus
UAW Local 862 member and registered nurse Michelle Crumbie has worked in a hospital as an X-ray technician, and as a nurse in the hospital, the local health department and as a veteran’s benefits representative.
None of those prepared her for COVID-19. As a nurse in an auto plant, it is a different world than she is used to. Now, when she is at work at the Ford Louisville Assembly Plant in Louisville, Kentucky, she wears a mask and sometimes a welder’s shield over her eyeglasses if she is dealing with an ill worker. If needed, she has a medical gown at her disposal.
“We are dealing with something that can lead to death very quickly and that is scary. Because of the uncertainty of this virus a lot of time is spent talking to workers and giving directions and reassurance of the protections that are in place because they are sacred,” she says.
“They are concerned that it is too soon to be back to work and some are concerned because they have underlying health issues that might put them or their families at greater risk,” Crumbie says.
“As a medical professional I have worked and seen a lot” she says, “but this is the job I choose and I will continue to perform my job as long as possible.”
“I was wrapping up a genetic interaction mapping project on HIV in January when we became aware of the new coronavirus. Since then, we’ve been working around the clock to find the interactions between SARS-CoV-2 proteins and human proteins. By uncovering the human proteins that enable the spread of the virus, we are able to identify existing FDA-approved drugs which might be repurposed for COVID-19 patients.
“This effort has grown to include over 20 labs and a range of other collaborations, including Mount Sinai in New York and Institute Pasteur in Paris. We are gearing up to do live infection studies and are waiting for safety protocols and PPE. The same things we need to do the work is what the frontline hospital needs – so that is impacting the live virus work.
I am grateful I can try to make a difference. I like to be able to support others and try to contribute to the greater good. I’m lucky to be in this position with the kind of lab that has the experience and resources we have. The team has been absolutely incredible. The dataset we gathered would not have been analyzed for months or even years — but what we’ve shown is that we can come together and push this stuff out quickly when we all work together.”
Debby Hollis doesn’t make a big fuss about things. She just acts. That is exactly what she did when she signed on to make Ventec critical care ventilators capable of supporting patients fighting COVID-19.
“I don’t like to get into a panic about things. I just do what is needed,” says the Local 292 member. “There was no question that I would do this. I feel like it is my obligation as a union member and as an employee.”
Hollis, who usually makes circuit boards for airbags, has worked at the GMCH Kokomo plant for nearly 21 years. Her husband, John, is a Kokomo city employee and deemed an essential worker. They have no children at home.
“It’s just the two of us and since my husband has to work anyway, I figured why not volunteer. I’m proud to step up and do my part. It’s my chance to contribute to something,” says Hollis. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a choice. This is their profession. It’s what they signed up for. I understand that and I want to be part of that team to do what I can.”
Keeping busy helps her focus less on the personal impact of the COVID-19 threat.
“I have an elderly mother and she may be one of the people who needs a ventilator. And my 18-year-old grandson just lost his paternal grandfather to it. So, this does have an impact on my family,” Hollis says. “Not everyone can contribute in the same way. This is what I can do. In times like these, everyone gives whatever they can and that is good enough.”
The day COVID-19 shutdown the Warren (Michigan) Technical Center is the day Travis Fick jumped wholeheartedly into the fight against the virus.
“It was a Friday. I believe March 20. I had been paying attention, so I knew there was a shortage of personal protection equipment, so I started a Facebook group to see what we could do,” says the Local 160 member.
Immediately, he posted information about the need to get protection gear to medical professionals. He called businesses like dentist offices that had closed because they were not essential, but might have N95 masks, gloves, medical gowns and caps, or anything that could be used on the front lines.
“At first there were three of us,” Fick says. “My mother, Cindi, and my wife, Jenny, started sewing masks and I was making the calls and delivering supplies,” he says. “In a couple of days, we had a few hundred people in the Facebook group, some sewing, and some helping raise awareness.”
Fick, a metal model worker, used his personal credit cards to buy fabric for the masks and paid for gas to deliver whatever he could procure from businesses throughout the Detroit area. When he reached his financial limit, he set up a site for donations.
Now, there are about 1,300 members in the Facebook group, a website with a map to show how his Michigan COVID-19 Relief project is coming and where donations are going, and 50 sewers producing 500 masks daily for workers on the front lines in Detroit, Port Huron, Grand Rapids and more. The donations allow the campaign to supply the protection gear at no cost to those who receive them.
About 6,050 masks and counting have been donated. The Facebook page posts photos and thanks from medical professionals who have received donations. The website allows visitors to register to help.
“All it takes is a spark to start a fire,” said Fick. “It has been a huge effort. You want to talk about community and solidarity to answer the call in a time of need, that is what we are doing.” Fick says he stopped counting the hours it takes to keep the project going. “This virus doesn’t sleep,” Fick says. “I figure I shouldn’t sleep either.” For more information visit the Michigan Covid-19 Relief Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/239086287487039/ and the website at mc19relief.com.
On March 13, Penni Cox was laid off from her job at the General Motors plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
“Business wasn’t good, and the company was downsizing. We prayed for more work. We were willing to build anything. We just wanted to work,” says Cox. “And now, here we are building ventilators.”
Cox, a mother and grandmother, is a third-generation autoworker and member of UAW Local 292 and is proud and excited to contribute to the COVID-19 fight.
Her husband John, and son Kevin, are members of UAW Local 685. Kevin is laid off from FCA and is hoping to start making ventilators as soon as he gets the call. Her son, Cody, is a member of UAW Local 1166. Her daughter, Kellie, is a medical assistant. “So, union and helping others are very much a part of our family. Not only for my friends and work family at GMCH here in Kokomo, but my own personal family as well,” says Cox.
“We tell our children and grandchildren to give back and pay it forward,” she adds. “Here is our opportunity to show them exactly what that means.”
Cox said she never imagined she would be building medical equipment. “But that is what is needed so that is what we have to do,” she says. “And what we build will be used to save lives. That is a good feeling.”
Is she scared? Yes, she said. But there is a bigger picture.
“We all just want to protect our family and friends,” she says. We’re not on the front lines like doctors and nurses and medical professionals, but this is our way to support the fight. This is history. One day we can explain to our grandchildren that this was the year they couldn’t have a birthday party, but it was the year we helped save lives,” she adds.
“In Kokomo, we are a very giving community. As a UAW member, this is just who we are. I am hopeful people may bring us other work for our plant. Because as soon as this is over if we don’t get more work, we will lose these jobs,” she says. “We really need it and for them to just pray for our country.”
Local 245 member Robert Nader gets antsy sitting still. Instead of going stir-crazy, he signed up for a job that would keep him busy and hopefully save lives. He is making face shields to help fight the spread of the devastating COVID-19 virus.
“It’s not just me. It’s a lot of different people in here coming together to help,” said Nader. “The medical community really needs these masks and other personal protection equipment right now.”
Nader, who normally handles die repair, now spends 12 hours a day at Ford subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing Company in Plymouth, Michigan.
He is now helping to produce transparent full-face shields for medical workers and first responders. The shields fully block the face and eyes from accidental contact with liquids and when paired with N95 respirators can be a more effective way to limit potential exposure to coronavirus than N95 respirators alone.
“I think helping out is a good thing and it keeps your mind off what’s going on,” said Nader, who has friends who have tested positive but survived COVID-19. “It was pretty touch-and-go there for a while, but thankfully, they made it through.
UAW Local 95 member Sandy Welch is a five-year cancer survivor. She has high blood pressure, too.
That means her immune system is not 100%. But, while others in Wisconsin are told to stay home, she heads to work every day as a medical transcriptionist at a medical clinic in Janesville.
“I have a compromised immune system and sometimes I think about that, but I don’t let that take over my thoughts,” she said.
Welch, chair of the amalgamated local’s Unit 9, has been a UAW member for 20 years and has worked at the clinic the entire time. The unit represents about 165 members including nurses, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists, health care transcriptionists, assistants and receptionists.
For others on the front lines, Welch is keeping them in mind. Normally, four transcriptionists and a host of doctors at the clinic see about 500 patients a day. Wisconsin’s COVID-19 order encouraging residents to stay home has reduced traffic at the clinic to about 90 patients a day seeking only essential medical care. Welch is the sole transcriptionist at the clinic now.
UAW Local 2320 National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW) represents more than 4,500 members across the country. They are UAW’s only national amalgamated local union. Its members provide free legal services to low income residents needing assistance with housing, domestic violence, safety net services, health care and more.
Members from Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) unit jumped into action immediately when COVID 19 started impacting Boston’s low-income communities. Using the power of individual representation, hands-on training and support, systemic advocacy and legislation to support their clients and immigrant worker centers, the Employment Unit at GBLS has never been busier.
Its members Audrey Richardson, Hannah Tanabe, Elizabeth Whiteway, Luz Arevalo, Joey Michalakes, Brian Flynn and Monica Halas are working around the clock to protect Boston’s most vulnerable residents and families.
Their successful efforts have led to raising awareness about the states recently enacted moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, drafting legislation to help immigrant workers receive state stimulus money, developing and implementing assisting hundreds of non-English speaking workers apply for unemployment benefits, and representing clients denied unemployment or not receiving stimulus payments.
According to Region 9A Director Beverley Brakeman, “UAW’s legal services attorneys and staff are experts in their field. They know the law, but as importantly they know their way around the system. They are quick, resourceful creative and flexible in solving problems. And they don’t discriminate — they help — and they do it in good times and in bad, and they always make a difference.”
Halas, a longtime UAW member and retiree is an expert in unemployment law. Without hesitation she rejoined GBLS staff on a full-time basis to help during this time. With the others they quickly put together town hall “Know Your Rights” meetings to help residents, allies and UAW members faced with sudden unemployment. Their work has been replicated by other legal services programs in other states.
“Any region who needs this type of support should reach out to me or NOLSW President Pamela Smith,” continued Brakeman. This is an incredible team effort,” said Halas. “We have an amazing and talented group of advocates at GBLS. Everyone is working super hard to help people who might not otherwise receive assistance or be able to navigate systems that would help them.”
UAW member Andrea Brown wanted to volunteer at a local food bank, but her regular work schedule at the Amanda Manufacturing plant got in the way.
Now on layoff, she has the time and is on the front lines as a food pantry volunteer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was sitting at home and saw a post on Facebook about the South East Ohio Food Bank,” says Brown, Local 1549’s financial secretary. “It said there was a need for volunteers because the only volunteer was an 87-year-old man.”
Brown started at the food bank in New Lexington, Ohio, on April 3 and works there every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. She drives about 30 minutes to the job and makes sure boxes of food are ready for those who depend on the food pantry.
“I’m not worried about myself,” Brown says. “I know there are people out there who are in need and I want to be there to help them.” When she told Local 1549 President Kevin McQuaide what she was going to do, he joined her on April 10. Now the two of them work with a handful of others, including 87-year-old retired UAW Local 1686 member Paul Miller, of New Lexington. I’m very fortunate because of the union, but there are people who don’t have that safety net,” says McQuaide, president of the 146-member local representing workers at the Logan, Ohio, parts supplier.
“I know that there are risks,” McQuaide says. “But in this case, it is well worth the risk to help others in this time with so much going on and lives on the line.”
When Ford Motor Company’s Louisville Assembly Plant in Kentucky stopped production in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, UAW Local 862 member and registered nurse Denise Butsch remained on duty.
As one of the local’s six nurses, she answered calls and talked with members who had questions about the virus and resources, or anxiety surrounding the pandemic.
“It was busy, even if there were only a few people in the plant,” Butsch says. “People were calling and asking questions about symptoms and whether they should reach out to their doctor.”
On May 18, when the plant reopened and first-shift workers, representing about half of the 3,700 members at the plant returned, Butsch became a direct resource for members concerned about COVID-19.
“The phones are constantly ringing,” she says. “We let members know that the plant had been cleaned and sanitized and that social distancing is in place, but a lot of people are still concerned,” she says.
“Our members are now dealing with the emotional aspects of how this affects the world around them.”
And, while she works with members, Butsch has her own concerns.
“I have an 86-year-old father that I look in on,” Butsch says. “He is very independent, but I go to see him to check on him and I don’t want to take anything to him.” Even with all the concerns and negatives of COVID-19, “We are all learning to take care of one another and stay safe,” she adds.
The dangers of COVID-19 mean that UAW Local 2320 member Daniela Juarez, who works with the Migrant Farmworker Project in Wisconsin, doesn’t meet with her clients in person. She spends a lot of time talking with them on the phone.
In person or not, her assistance is vital as many of her Spanish-speaking clients are challenged by lack of access to public areas where they depend on technology to help them get information, file forms or apply for unemployment insurance benefits, says Juarez, who assists migrant and seasonal farmworkers throughout Wisconsin.
The Farmworker Project helps migrant and seasonal farmworkers with issues related to wages, unemployment, housing and protections under state and federal migrant protection laws.
Juarez is one of three attorneys on the team. Korey Lundin staffs a COVID intake line for clients facing eviction and COVID-related housing issues. Carlos Bailey helped draft an amicus brief in the Wisconsin Legislature in support of the state’s “Safer at Home” orders.
Many of the clients who need her help are challenged by language, literacy and technology barriers. Some of them use computers in libraries in other public places. “And a lot of those places were closed because of COVID-19,” Juarez says.
“This is very difficult for many of my clients because these systems they need to get information, file forms or apply for benefits that require reliable technology,” she adds.
“If a client has problems reading a document, they have to send me a picture of it and if they don’t have reliable technology to do that, then they have to read it to me.
Sometimes that can be very difficult and very frustrating.”
Without Juarez to help, she says, a client might turn to a family member or friend. “And any mistake can have very serious consequences. There is a lot weighing on people getting it right. That is why a program like this means so much to people, especially at a time like this.
There are thousands of other UAW members across the country doing what they can every day to fight this deadly virus.
“We are grateful to have such selfless members who honor our union’s tradition of helping out in the community, particularly during times of national crisis,” said UAW President Rory L. Gamble. “Their courage and tenacity will greatly help the overall effort to beat COVID-19 and get our country back to where we need to be.
“In the meantime, stay safe, stay home as much as possible, and follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Our union will continue to do everything in its power to make sure our members have safe working conditions so that they can return home from their job in the same condition as when they reported for work.”
“I would like to recognize and commend everyone who plays an integral part as essential workers across the UAW, with a special emphasis on my brothers and sisters who perform cleanup duties. We have always known our value and worth with the jobs we perform, from the roof tops and tanks to the tunnels below, to keep our plants running smoothly.
“I would like to thank three people at Louisville Assembly Plant who stayed the course voluntarily, from the moment the plant went down to present They could have taken layoff or said they didn’t feel safe and Leadec could have procured temps on a one-for-one basis. They volunteered to stay, cleaning areas of the main plant, taking calls, and sanitizing behind our brothers and sisters in the plant, putting them above their own wellbeing. We salute Ronald Clayton, Astin Gray and Kimmy Huang-Walsh.
Every person has a part to play, regardless of company or department. They definitely should have received hazard pay! To be thrust into a new role of sanitizing touch points, entryways, etc., and being the frontline defense for an unforeseen, unknown pandemic was definitely something we never expected to happen.”