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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk


Part 3 of a series that shares DC 37 members’ personal stories and their reasons for getting the COVID-19 vaccine. In the fight to end a global pandemic, DC 37 is proud of the work, sacrifice, and dedication of its members in these unprecedented and challenging times.
­— As told to DIANE S. WILLIAMS

Marlena Giga

Local 983 Grievance Representative & Urban Park Ranger

As a grievance rep for Local 983, we have been working around the clock since the pandemic hit New York City last year. At first, we were handing out masks, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and thermometers to our members in Parks across the five boroughs. Local 983 spent approximately $25,000 on PPE equipment to keep members protected and safe during the crisis.

We had triple the amount of calls from members and tried to assist in every issue that arose—from COVID-19 exposure to the lack of child care and finding a provider for the member’s child. It was an amazing feeling to help our members who are essential workers when they felt hopeless.

In 2020, we also faced the unanticipated layoffs of 130 PEP Officers and Urban Parks Rangers. The City cut the Parks Department budget and Parks safety workers and more than 1,000 City Seasonal Aides who keep Parks clean were not hired for the season.

These cuts really hurt the city and tested our members, who are understaffed and overworked. During the pandemic, more and more New Yorkers used city parks and green spaces as a reprieve from all the stress and anxiety.

While working the week of Feb. 22, 2021, I began to feel aches and pain. The next day, I went to take a COVID-19 test. The result was positive. I progressively got worse. I went to Montefiore Hospital and Long Island Jewish Hospital because I experienced difficulty breathing. I was treated and released with medication. Even while I was ill, I took some calls from members.

I really thought I would not make it through COVID. I have to thank my fellow Local 983 staff for all the support they gave me through my COVID-19 illness. One of them made me a turmeric immunity drink, which helped greatly.

I am so proud to be a union member and a representative who advocates for workers. I have the union’s back and they have mine.

I took the Pfizer vaccine in April and my second dose in May because I never want to be that sick with COVID again. I also want to protect my health, and that of my family, my coworkers, and the general public that I work with daily. As a rep, I was vaccinated because I want to make sure the members are comfortable being around me and are ok with being vaccinated themselves. The positives of the COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh the negatives.

Sandy Sims

Parent Coordinator, P.S. 45, Local 372

I have been a Parent Coordinator at P.S. 45 in Staten Island for five years. Initially when the pandemic hit, it was very challenging to transition quickly to working from home full time. Eventually I found a way to balance and manage my time between the personal and the professional.

As a Parent Coordinator, I support families, helping them get what they need for their children to learn. The pandemic highlighted the inequities of our system. It took some adjustments and now I have relationships with families, we are comfortable and have found our way.

Part of my job is to provide information and resources, and I am a Spanish language translator. I am the first person parents go to before they speak to the assistant principal or principal. I am a liaison who makes sure all families feel welcome and their voices are heard.

I recently took my second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. My decision took time because I was not on board at first. I did my research to understand the vaccine more. I also spoke to my physician, who I trust.

What I learned helped me decide that I should receive the vaccine. My doctor explained the science behind the vaccine and the benefits. She eased my fears and urged me to follow the science—not social media—because not everything on social media is factual.

I took the vaccine because I work in a school building with adults and children. I believe that by taking the vaccine, I am not just helping myself, I am helping others. I tell everyone that I got the vaccine because when people know someone who has gotten the vaccine, it helps them work past their fears.

Before I had my first shot, I had high anxiety, but once I got it I felt fine and had no symptoms, just arm soreness.

I went for my second dose at Port Richmond High School, a city-designated vaccination site. When I looked around, I became so hopeful seeing so many other people being vaccinated. We followed the guidelines for social distancing. I felt I was really doing the right thing. I did have some mild flu-like symptoms 24 hours later, but it did not keep me in bed.

I felt it was my civic responsibility to get vaccinated. I hope I can help convince others to take the vaccine, too.

Now I feel I can keep working in school, caring for children and caring about my community. I in no way ever felt pressured to get the COVID vaccine. My union was so supportive because they said there is no pressure, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary and a personal choice.

Pia Marie Molina

Social Worker, Harlem Hospital, Local 768

I was vaccinated in Dec. 2020, as soon as the vaccine became available at work. As a social worker on the frontlines at Harlem Hospital, I saw the effects of COVID-19 firsthand on the staff, patients, and our community. The Social Work Unit faced challenges of rapidly and safely discharging patients into quarantine settings. We worked in tandem with the Department of Homeless Services and Office of Mental Health as new COVID policies rolled out. We continued to address challenges such as insurance status, culturally responsive healthcare, safety in the homes, and mental health support to provide healthcare and services to patients during this unprecedented time. This pandemic exposed health inequity and disproportionate deaths in Black and brown communities and we all saw this firsthand. We tried our best to support and honor families who lost loved ones and could not say goodbye.

Some of my colleagues and many of our patients got sick and died from COVID-19, and this became our day-to-day work atmosphere. The unknown nature of the virus was scary as we saw it affect all ages with or without comorbidities.

I got sick with COVID-19 in March 2020. I lost my sense of taste and smell, I had migraines, weakness, shortness of breath, and body aches. I was out of work for about a week, but it took me over a month to regain my strength. Throughout this pandemic I had to quarantine and I could not see my family. We missed Christmas together. All of these experiences made me want to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

Having a vaccine means that there is tangible hope that the pandemic can end. The vaccine is a breakthrough that brings us closer to safety and a sense of normalcy. I know being vaccinated is not a 100% guarantee, but I am grateful for the research and science that gets us to a safer and more hopeful place now.

Wilfredo Yanez

Security Guard, Hunters Point Library Queens Library Guild, Local 1321

I am a Security Guard at the Hunters Point Library where I’ve worked since 2019. I was vaccinated in May and got both shots at the Javits Center because it is closer to home and convenient. It was one, two, three and done—no lines. They are very quick and very organized.

The reason I got vaccinated was to feel safe and to make others safe. The COVID vaccine is a very sensitive issue, but I wanted to comply with CDC recommendations. I wear my COVID-19 vaccine card along with my work ID so people can clearly see that I am vaccinated. This way they can approach me and not fear they will contract coronavirus.

I had no side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine.

Since July 2020, I have been on the frontlines as an essential worker at the library. I keep people safe and the premises secure. Now that we are open again, I make sure that everyone has on a mask that covers their nose and mouth, and that people are six feet apart. We are in the second stage of the reopen, so people can come in for 30 minutes to browse the aisles to look for books, use the computers, use restrooms, and scan and print documents. About 98% of the visitors are aware and understand these requirements.

Though I am vaccinated, I still wear my mask and I feel safer wearing it. I want to make people feel safe and I want to contribute to a safer environment for everyone.

Amy Willis

Customer Service Supervisor, Hunters Point Library Queens Library Guild, Local 1321

I am the Customer Service Supervisor at the Hunters Point Library in Queens, where I have worked for four years. I took the Pfizer vaccine in February because I feel being vaccinated is a public health issue. It was important to me to be healthy and not risk potentially exposing others to COVID-19.

I got vaccinated out of a strong sense of responsibility to my community and the people I come across at the grocery store or the bank. I don’t want to get anyone sick due to some negligence on my part. I believe it is important to be respectful of my fellow New Yorkers and being vaccinated is part of my civic duty.

In March 2020, my husband, who is an essential worker, contracted COVID. We were terrified not knowing what to expect or what, if anything, we could do to control his symptoms and illness. It was a scary few weeks. That experience made me want the vaccine as soon as it became available. I was grateful for the daily updates from Gov.Cuomo and his brother Chris, who had COVID and recovered.

Once the library shut down, I worked from home doing administrative work, meetings, and running programs virtually. Currently, as the city reopens, the library is providing limited service. I work face-to-face with the public, issuing library cards, processing book returns and more. The library is very important to the community and provides vital services.

The COVID-19 vaccine is a tool that lets me provide services the community needs. You don’t know what people who visit the branch are going through or what their home situations are. Being vaccinated, I am more confident that I can safely do my job to make their lives better.

Jerrie Grantham

Community Affairs Manager Queens Public Library, Local 1321

For the last three years, I’ve managed 28 Friends of the Library chapters and other community outreach programs.

At first, I had apprehensions about the COVID-19 vaccine, but I knew I had the obligation to protect my family and myself, so in April I got vaccinated.

I was able to get a vaccine appointment because of DC 37. The union held an event at Citi Field in my neighborhood of Corona, Queens. The numbers were so high where I live and we lost so many people to the pandemic. Vaccine appointments were difficult to get in my neighborhood. An appointment became available in the Bronx. Traveling there would have been a hardship and an inconvenience. Thanks to my union, I got a COVID vaccine appointment on a Saturday at Citi Field. It was a perfect solution for me.

The pandemic was a very stressful time. The silver lining was being able to spend time with my two children as I work from home. As a mother with children in the first and second grades, I am optimistic that schools will reopen, but I am taking things one a day at a time.

When the pandemic hit, the library had to reconfigure what we do to keep the membership engaged. My work included doing welfare checks and pivoting to virtual presentations. We offer library services online. Another challenge was helping people who were not tech savvy bridge the virtual divide. I made phone calls and wrote letters to keep those members engaged. We distributed books outside the libraries to keep people involved and reading.

Last year, we also were involved in Census 2020 outreach to make sure everyone in the community was counted. We held virtual conferences, which was new and exciting, and we lifted up the essential workers who are on the ground doing the work. A high point was getting a letter of commendation from U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who recognized our work during National Friends of the Library week.

Part of my job involves fundraising for the local branches. The Rosedale Friends group had a grant from then-City Council Member Donovan Richards. They used the money to purchase books to distribute to the Rosedale community in January and April. We linked the events to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Presidential inauguration. We tied into that historic event by distributing children’s books, including one written by Vice President Kamala Harris. In April, our event coincided with Jackie Robinson Day. We distributed books on baseball and the young adult version of Michelle Obama’s book Becoming.

I had just gotten my second dose of the vaccine the same day of the April book giveaway. Being vaccinated made me feel much more comfortable interacting with the public. Being outside with people at these events was so uplifting.

Now that libraries are reopening in phases, people can visit branches for 30 minutes, browse for books, and use the computers while masked. The pandemic was really challenging and now that we are coming out of the shutdown, it’s great to be able to engage with people again as more of us are vaccinated.

Angel Benitez

Behavioral Health Associate, Harlem Hospital Local 420 Second Vice President

I have been a Behavioral Health Associate for six years at Harlem Hospital’s Psychiatric Ward. In March 2020, I contracted the coronavirus. In the Psych Ward, a lot of us were getting sick. We deal with patients who are admitted and may refuse to be tested for COVID. We deal with patients who refuse to wear masks.

When the pandemic hit, about six or seven of us got sick. My symptoms were tightness in my chest and phlegm, so I went to Urgent Care in my neighborhood of Webster in the Bronx. They refused to give me a COVID test. Two days later, I developed a fever, body aches, and a lot of mucus.

Then my twin daughters who were just 2 years old at the time, got sick. My wife also became ill. The twins were misdiagnosed with strep throat. Then they told us it was the flu. Remember, this was early in the pandemic and there was a lot of conflicting information.

COVID-19 is deadly and there are no meds or treatment a doctor can give as a cure. One of my twins has asthma and her having COVID was really frightening. This was such a scary time for my family.

I was given two rounds of antibiotics and Tamiflu. It took about a week for the fever to break. I returned to work after nine days. That’s when I found out several of my coworkers were out sick.

I was so weak that I could not walk a half block without stopping to catch my breath. I am very athletic, my coworkers call me Speedy and Flash, but COVID took my strength away. We learned we had COVID when antibodies showed up in my wife’s bloodwork. We all have the antibodies. Fortunately, we recovered. My older children, ages 10 and 15, did not get sick.

I signed up as soon the COVID-19 vaccine became available and took my doses on Jan. 2 and 22 at Harlem Hospital. I took the vaccine for two reasons: my family and my coworkers.

We were exposed and caught COVID from a patient who refused to take a COVID test after being admitted to the Emergency Department. Testing is part of hospital protocol. He was moved to the 12th floor and refused to wear a mask. Everyone came down sick. We have staff shortages that worsened as more and more workers were getting sick and were out for extended periods.

I took the vaccine to protect my family, my mom who has some health complications, and myself. Having this virus scared me and I am frightened for my family, so I took the vaccine to protect us. My wife did, too.

I work in an environment where I am exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis. To anyone undecided about taking the vaccine, listen to the experts and look at people who have gotten the vaccine. If you love and care for your family, get the vaccine and protect them and yourself. It hurts more if you are asymptomatic and bring this virus home to family and they become sick. COVID is deadly and we cannot afford to be reckless.

Kenneth Blacks

DOE Loader Handler and Forklift Operator, Local 372

For over 33 years, I have worked at the Department of Education’s headquarters for food distribution in Long Island City. We receive and ship food to all schools throughout the five boroughs, including public and charter schools, and some Catholic schools. We are the backbone of the whole operation that feeds New York City’s schoolchildren year round, and hungry New Yorkers during the pandemic.

I got the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 29, because I have diabetes. I did it to protect myself. I took my second shot on Feb. 27. I do not want to bring this virus home to my 85-year-old mother or my 94-year-old aunt. I love them so much. A lot of their care falls on me, and they depend on me since they lost their husbands. In addition, my fiancé is in remission from cancer. She was vaccinated March 8.

It comes down to this: I want to keep my loved ones safe, including my 11-month-old granddaughter, so I got the vaccine.

About 30 of us work together at the warehouse. We practice social distancing, wear masks, use sanitizer, take our temperature when we get to work each morning. We stay masked up. Seven of us got the vaccine and another 10 plan to soon. Other coworkers are waiting to see what happens. When you think about it, the longer you wait, the greater your chances are of getting the virus.

I served in the Army and I know some people are leery of the government and think this may be an experiment. We don’t live in a perfect world. We need to have some trust that this vaccine can help keep us safe from COVID and its variants that are more contagious and possibly more deadly.

Coronavirus is much more serious than the flu. If the vaccine can help prevent it, I recommend you get it. Just like you wouldn’t go out in freezing weather without a coat, hat, and other protection, this vaccine protects us the same way.