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Labor leaders honor fallen workers after a year of devastation due to COVID

Construction continues on townhouses in Seattle on April 24, 2020.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Construction continues on townhouses in Seattle on April 24, 2020.

The ceremonial ringing of a bell concluded the reading of 119 names during a virtual memorial Wednesday — names of people who left for work one day and never came home.

Each year, the state Department of Labor & Industries pays tribute to the workers who died on the job. L&I resumed its Worker Memorial Day tradition despite the pandemic, which forced the closure of the event in 2020.   

But last year was unlike any other since the tradition started more than two decades ago. The pandemic brought new risks to frontline and essential workers and contributed significantly to work-related deaths. Of the 119 deaths on the job last year, two dozen of them resulted from workers contracting COVID-19 while working in hospitals, long-term care facilities and other workplaces. That amounts to about 20 percent of the workplace deaths in 2020.

“COVID-19 has taken so much from us,” L&I director Joel Sacks said during Wednesday’s event.

But he stressed how important it was to gather, even from afar, to remember the lives lost.

The people honored during the memorial were young and old, with ages ranging from 20 to 98.

The most dangerous jobs last year were construction and agriculture, which claimed 22 and 21 lives, respectively. Leading causes of workplace deaths were falls, being struck or injured by machinery, and motor-vehicle accidents.

There was a slight drop in workplace homicides and suicides as well as a drop in vehicle accidents.

Gov. Jay Inslee and representatives from various labor groups spoke during the ceremony.

“These people cannot be considered statistics. They matter,” Inslee said. “They went to work to provide for their family or fulfill their passion.”

Tina Meyer, who also spoke during the ceremony, said flagging on a construction site wasn’t necessarily her son Cody’s passion. But he woke up every day and put on his neon work uniform with a positive attitude.

Her son was killed on the job by a distracted driver in December 2015. She offered words of advice for families who were present to honor their loved ones.

“I ask that you try to find a way to work through your pain. Because holding onto it is just pain,” Meyer said. “Channel it into something positive. That’s what Cody would have wanted.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.