For Workers’ Memorial Day on Thursday, union-sponsored events across Iowa sought to “put a human face and name” to the 68 Iowans who died while at work in 2021.
“Every worker on this list has a story, a family and friends whose lives have been forever altered, when their loved one went to work one day and didn’t come home,” Paul Iversen, a labor educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center, said at the memorial event in Iowa City. “We gather on Workers’ Memorial Day to give these workers the respect they deserve, to say their names, to acknowledge the loss.”
Workers’ Memorial Day was first established on April 28, 1989, by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). It coincides with the date the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 went into effect, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers’ Memorial Day has become internationally recognized in 18 countries since 1989.
The Iowa City Federation of Labor held this year’s memorial service in the Iowa City Public Library. As rain drizzled outside, around 50 attendees gathered to remember people like Victoria Marie Parra-Lerdo of Rockwell City. At 17 years old, Parra-Lerdo died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working at a hog confinement building in Kossuth County. She was the youngest Iowan to die while at work during the past year.
Larry Hon and Charles Padavitch, both 78 years old, were the oldest people on the list. Hon contracted COVID-19 while working as a bus driver for the Johnston School District, and Padavich, a nursery worker, was struck by a falling tree branch.
Of the 68 Iowans, 35 died of COVID-19. This number is underreported, however, because the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) doesn’t include workplace illnesses, unless precipitated by an “acute injury.”
OSHA keeps a separate tally of COVID-19 fatalities that were reported by employers, which includes cases where it is unclear if the individual contracted COVID-19 while at work.
“An incredible number of them worked at schools,” Iversen said. “Political leadership in Des Moines hampered school districts from protecting their employees, and we’re seeing the cost of that.”
Two Coralville residents were among those memorialized on Thursday. John Demarco, 73, contracted COVID-19 while working as a football coach for Regina High School. Bart Mason, 52, contracted COVID-19 while serving as the director of teaching and learning for the Grant Woods Area Education Agency.
There were 4,764 fatal occupational injuries nationwide in 2020, not including COVID-19 deaths, according to CFOI. It was the lowest annual number since 2013. Transportation injuries, such as those involving truck drivers, made up the majority of deaths, accounting for 1,778 deaths, 37.3 percent of the total.
The number of Hispanic or Latino workers who died increased from 20.4 percent, or 1,088 people, in 2019 to 22.5 percent, or 1,072 people, in 2020. Women made up 8.1 percent of all fatalities, including 16.3 percent of workplace homicides.
The number of workplace deaths in Iowa decreased in 2020 after remaining constant for the previous four years. There were 76 deaths in 2016, 72 in 2017, 77 in 2018, 76 in 2019 and 58 in 2020.
Greg Hearns of the Hawkeye Area Labor Council said that although OSHA has saved countless lives in the workplace, inspections by the agency fell sharply during the pandemic and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, partly due to a lack of funding. Hearns praised President Biden’s pick for Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and the new head of OSHA, Doug Parker.
“If you have the right people in office, you have the right results. I don’t care about special interests. I care about people’s lives,” Hearns said.
To remember the individuals who died in the workplace, attendees each read the name and biography of one person on the list. After they read each name, the crowd repeated, “Gone but not forgotten,” in unison.
“During social justice demonstrations in 2020, there was a call, ‘Say Their Name.’ I think this is a perfect opportunity for us to say these workers’ names, and honor them and remember them. Because no one should go to work and not come home to their family,” Hearns said.
Several union workers died last year. Lorena Schulte, a 50-year-old registered nurse at Anamosa State Penitentiary, and Robert McFarland, a 46-year-old correctional officer, were killed when two inmates attempted to escape from the facility.
“As we’ve been saying for a long time, staffing levels at correction facilities are unsafe,” Iversen said. “There is a human cost to those budgetary decisions.”
Two members of UAW Local 450 died during the John Deere strike. Richard Rich, 56, from the Quad-Cities, was struck by a car while crossing the street to join the picket line. And Curtis Templeman, 48, a contract negotiator, died from COVID-19 during negotiations.
Iversen and Templeman worked closely together while Iversen taught at union steward training schools.
“He always seemed to be in good spirits. He could make me laugh,” he said. “I already miss him. I can’t believe I’m not gonna see his smiling face and shake his hand, next time I’m at the UAW 450 call.”
Templeman was a “passionate” union worker, Iversen said. He continued to participate in the John Deere negotiations from his hospital bed in Iowa City. He passed away the day after they completed contract negotiations.