In-person instruction in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has ramped up this week, and so has a campaign to recognize the contributions of custodians and other essential SMMUSD staff with Hero Pay.

It’s been nearly a year to the day since Maintenance Worker Henry Plasencia first discovered he had contracted COVID-19.

“One day, I just didn’t taste my food anymore. I was taking cold showers to take down the fevers. Then, I started to give up the fight and started to get really sleepy,” Plasencia said in an interview Tuesday.

At the time, his wife was also in the hospital fighting COVID-19.

“I remember she gave me a call to come pick her up and I got so happy,” he said. “I picked her up and she said she was still fighting pneumonia but they sent her home with no medicine. I was worried but I thought I’d take a nap before we headed back to the emergency room. That was how it went back then; you were always going back and forth. But my wife said, ‘No, you’re going to the hospital. You don’t look so good.’”

When he arrived at a local emergency room last March, Plasencia said it was like staff had only been waiting for him.

“It was all set up for me. I told them I’d been fighting for two weeks and they took my temperature, a chest x-ray — it all moved so fast,” he said. “And then, I was moved to a room upstairs with a really nice view, a TV, phone, a bed; I felt like I was in the presidential suite. And I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’”

He wasn’t wrong. Doctors soon came into the room and asked for his last words.

“I said, ‘Tell everyone that I love them and give me the phone so I can tell my wife what’s going on.’ But the phone wasn’t working and my cell phone was at 1% so I had zero contact with her. I left her at home fighting COVID-19 and she had no idea if I was coming home or not,” he said. “You couldn’t imagine how I felt.”

With depleting oxygen levels and doctors rushing in and out of the room, Plasencia found it hard to talk and doesn’t remember many of the conversations he had later that night. He did recall attempting to write his thoughts down with a pen, but the writing on the paper looked more like the results of a lie-detector test than English.

“I just remember getting real sleepy and trying to fight off the sleep. I’ll never forget the look that the staff gives you; the eyes that you see — you’ve never seen that before in your life… They’re seeing someone suffer and not knowing if they’re gonna close their eyes for the rest of their life. That look just stuck with me and I knew something wasn’t right, so I refused to fall asleep,” Plasencia said.

He couldn’t fight it forever though.

When he awoke, a doctor was over him hand-pumping oxygen into his system while another asked him to inhale gas that would put him in the dark for six weeks.

“My wife dealt with six weeks of constant phone calls to the emergency room and reports of: ‘He’s not gonna make it. He’s going to have kidney failure… his organs are coming back, but his lungs are full of liquid and not working,’” Plasencia said. “I remember being like a giant worm, because I couldn’t move my body. It would take four people to turn me on my side, hose me down, scrub me with soap and water, feed me through a tiny straw through my nose, and when I finally woke up, all I could do was think to run for the door. I thought, ‘Let’s get out of here. Let’s go see my wife. Let’s go see if I still have a job to support my family,’ and I couldn’t move. I tried and I tried and I tried and I couldn’t.”

It would be another six weeks in a congregate care facility before Plasencia regained his motor skills and speech ability.

“It felt a lot longer than six weeks in an induced coma and month in the center. Me and my wife are crying with joy every day because we never thought we were going to share dinner together,” he added. “And that’s why I’m fighting so hard for this Hero Pay for me and my co-workers, because we deserve it.”

In a statement Tuesday, SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati said the district is in negotiations with both of its bargaining units at the moment so he is unable to discuss the matter more until a tentative agreement is reached.

But like all school districts in California, SMMUSD is underfunded in many crucial areas and its still working to reduce a structural deficit as part of a fiscal stabilization plan required by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, he said. “At the same time, we still provided raises to all employees prior to this school year, we have enhanced access and affordability to health care, and our campus improvement projects are creating vastly improved working conditions.”

Custodial staff has also been trained through West Los Angeles Urgent Care and been custom-fitted for N-95 masks, according to Drati, who said the health and safety of all staff is a top priority for SMMUSD as he detailed his belief that the district’s comprehensive safety plan provides needed protections for all staff, both classified and certificated.

Locksmith Cesar Herrera recognized the district has addressed some of the problems but he is still scared for the wellbeing of his family after witnessing six of the 14 people who work in the same facility as him catch COVID-19.

“That was just a big scare factor, because you know you are taking care of yourself; you know what you’re doing to take care and to be out there safe, but not everybody thinks the same thing. Everybody has their own plan and thinks nothing is going to happen. Then, before you know it, you caught it,” Herrera said.

Plasencia feels he and his peers are even more at risk now with more students returning to campus.

“We’re in an enclosed environment even if the doors are open and even if they have the air purifier going on — that’s still not going to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. It’ll give the schools a sense of, ‘Hey, we’re doing something,’” Plasencia said. “But at the end of the day, that doesn’t kill the virus and I have a bad feeling there could be a spread when school starts to really reopen.”

And he’s not the only one with those thoughts.

“If I catch the thing, I have a very low chance of pulling through,” Herrera said, stating some staff members are refusing to get vaccinated. That’s their right, he added, but that’s all the more reason to have additional protections and Hero Pay in place at SMMUSD.

“The number one thing I want the district to do is help keep myself safe and keep my family safe and make me feel that you guys are actually thinking about us as a person and we’re just another number,” Herrera said, detailing how he and his wife have spent their own money to make sure he has been properly prepared in the fight against COVID. “She went ahead and bought this crazy expensive surgeon soap that they use before surgery. We got masks, a face shield… I was like, ‘Babe, aren’t we going overboard,’ but she asked if I wanted to be safe. I was like, ‘You’re right — buy it, because that’s how you’re going to keep me around.’ And honestly, I was the only one leaving my house. My kids were home, my wife was able to work remotely, so if anything came back to the house, it was going to fall on my shoulders.”

Max Arias, Executive Director of SEIU Local 99, a union representing hundreds of SMMUSD custodians, food service workers, teaching assistants and other classified school employees, said Herrera and Plasencia’s stories are one of many that can be told by the essential workers in Southern California.

That’s why SEIU officials have been asking to institute hero pay since last year, he said. However, the school district has repeatedly stated that it does not have the resources to recognize workers with additional pay even though other school districts like Los Angeles Unified and Hacienda La Puente Unified have secured additional pay of $5 an hour for essential workers.

“The people that do the cleaning are the ones that make the least, but it shouldn’t be so, especially now because they’re the only ones that are being asked to risk the health of their families and themselves to ensure students have a clean work environment,” Arias said. “As you’ve heard, the district’s safety record hasn’t been sterling, per se, but these essential workers have continued to show up to work, despite the hazards, and complete their jobs. So, we will keep continuing to push and campaign to get them to the table and reward these workers with Hero Pay. That is only right.”

As somebody with kids of his own, Herrera said he understands the need to see children return to the classroom.

“I do want them to come back as well, but we still have to be on our toes and recognize the pandemic is not over, and we are risking our lives,” he added.

“My life was almost cut short and now God has given me a second chance at living again. That’s why I’m dedicated to fighting for even a dollar more an hour. So, if I go my family has an extra dollar to go a little bit further,” Plasencia said. “When you’re gone and they ask, ‘How much was in his last paycheck or pension?’ — that’s when the hero pay is going to help because there will be something extra there to help cover the rent, to help cover the light bill or put food on the table. That’s when that $5 an hour is going to count because, at any minute while we’re working, one of us could get sick, go into the hospital, and whatever we have in the bank is all our families are going to have. And that’s why I say this fight for an extra $5 an hour is worth it.”

Brennon@smdp.com