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As she tended to her coronavirus-infected son, she also feared for the hospitality workers she represents

Donald Torres, Enrique Fernández and Ada Briceño
From left, Donald Torres, Enrique Fernández and Ada Briceño self-quarantined for about a month while Torres recovered from coronavirus.
(Courtesy of Ada Briceño)

From the confines of her living room in Stanton, Ada Briceño watched the pandemic take a toll on the lives and daily routines of her family, colleagues and the 32,000 workers represented by Unite Here Local 11.

Briceño, the co-president of Unite Here Local 11 and the chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, was already sheltering in place for about a week with her family when her 20-year-old son Donald Torres woke her in the middle of the night.

Torres had chills. She initially thought nothing of it, and he went back to bed.

“It hit me like a truck. One moment, I was relaxing and the other I was shaking uncontrollably and feeling really terrible,” Torres said.

By the next day, he developed body aches and a high fever.

“I got scared. I knew at that moment that it was COVID-19,” Briceño said.

The uncertainty of whether her son would live or die made the last two weeks of March seem like a year.

Torres was turned away from a coronavirus testing center, even though a St. Jude Medical Center doctor said he thought Torres was infected and recommended he get tested. At the time, many centers were limiting tests to those experiencing shortness of breath.

That symptom never took a hold of Torres. Instead, he experienced hallucinations and headaches that felt like his brain was being squeezed. Briceño said he would be drenched in sweat every single day. She would go into his room and find water droplets on the walls from condensation.

Their household turned into a self-isolation waiting game for about a month.

Torres, who lost about 16 pounds from loss of appetite, was confined to his bedroom. Briceño, who spent the most amount of time caring for her son, isolated herself in the living room. Her husband, who is immunocompromised, stayed in another bedroom and took over the kitchen, including prep-meal duty for the entire family.

After a week, Torres’ symptoms started to ease, and Briceño was able to make a few Zoom calls for work.

“That was the most difficult call I’ve ever done, because I wanted to make sure that the people who counted on me still had a voice, but it was so hard because I was in the deep of it,” she said. “I watched my union crumble down in front of my eyes in a week.”

Ada Briceño
Ada Briceño, the co-president for Unite Here Local 11 union, spoke to Spanish-speaking hotel employees during a “ballot party” in February to encourage hotel workers to vote.
(James Carbone)

Local 11 represents hospitality workers across Arizona, Los Angeles County and Orange County — namely large employers like Anaheim Convention Center, Disneyland and Hilton hotels.

Union Communications Director Rachel Sulkes estimates 90% of the workers at hotels, casinos, airports and stadiums have been laid off due to the pandemic.

Since dues from their members dried up, the union also furloughed 51 out of 110 of their staff members.

Local 11 organized mass food distributions and helped union members apply for unemployment benefits.

The most recent initiative, “Serving Our Community,” is in partnership with the Hospitality Training Academy of Los Angeles. The academy is using its resources to coordinate the preparation and delivery of meals to populations affected by the coronavirus through a contract awarded by the state.

Some Local 11 members are working at the University of Southern California’s kitchen, to provide meals for the surrounding at-risk senior citizens.

“They know how to churn out thousands of meals safely, quickly and reliably,” Sulkes said. “We think it’s the safest way to also put workers back to work.”

She added that the union and the academy are working to bring a similar setup to Orange County.

“I try to find the silver lining in everything that happens,” Briceño said. “I just got this passion that I feel right now toward this issue and making sure that our elected officials are doing everything possible to protect people like my family.”

Briceño continues to have a dialogue with city council and school board members about their responses to the pandemic including rent moratorium, creating plans to reopen and petitioning to provide protective supplies to essential workers.

As for her son, he recovered and is a few weeks away from finishing an online class at Cypress College.

“This is real; It’s not a lie,” Briceño said. “That’s why I’m sharing my story.”

“We’ve got to stay in place right now — that’s most important if we want to save lives,” she added, referring to the beach protests and reopening plans. “And unfortunately I’m worried about people rushing into things.”

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