Why America’s health care workers are escalating their fight for fair treatment and patient safety

Why America’s health care workers are escalating their fight for fair treatment and patient safety
Chief Hospital Corpsman Dom Navarro, from Orange County, Calif., counts patient gowns in the medical ward aboard Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) March 26. Mercy deployed in support of the nation's COVID-19 response efforts and will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients who are admitted to shore-based hospitals. This allows shore-based hospitals to focus their efforts on COVID-19 cases. One of the Department of Defense's missions is defense support of civil authorities. DoD is supporting FEMA, the lead federal agency, as well as state, local and public health authorities in helping protect the health and safety of the American people. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden)

So many people with COVID-19 sought treatment at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in recent months that the hospital triaged patients in a tent outside the facility and set up a makeshift ward in the main lobby.

Many workers put in 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the Southern California facility operating during the crisis, with some comforting the dying and others volunteering to use their Spanish skills to help communicate with bereft family members over the phone.

But instead of recognizing workers who risked their lives and pushed themselves to exhaustion, the hospital compounded the strain by demanding concessions and dragging out contract negotiations for more than a year.

Around the country, hospitals continue to stretch workers to the breaking point and put the entire health care system at risk.

"The fact is that without us, the hospitals have no one," observed Alma Garzon, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 183, which represents hundreds of workers at Providence St. Mary.

"Some of them don't understand what we really do," Garzon said of hospital executives. "The higher-ups are not going to come in and take care of our patients. They're not going to get their hands dirty."

The pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that plagued hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities long before COVID-19.

To protect their communities during the crisis, workers stepped up, put in arduous amounts of overtime and took on extra duties. Yet Garzon said that when union officials cited the need to invest in workers and take steps to boost staffing levels, management's response was: "You signed up for this."

"That was a big slap in the face," said Garzon, whose members ratified a new contract October 7, after about 15 months of the hospital's stonewalling.

More and more health systems treat workers with the same kind of disdain.

That's fueling widespread burnout and fatigue, and it's forcing a growing number of health care workers to escalate their fights for fair treatment and patient safety.

Nurses at a Massachusetts hospital began a strike seven months ago. Workers at facilities in New York and Oregon also took to picket lines in recent weeks.

California's Inland Empire is another potential flashpoint. About 7,400 members of USW Local 7600 are among tens of thousands of workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities there who recently authorized a strike because of demands by management that would impoverish their families and compromise care.

Although the conglomerate maintained a healthy bottom line during the pandemic, it wants to hold down wages for current workers and drastically cut pay scales for new hires, a one-two punch certain to worsen staffing shortages and put hospitals at risk.

Adding insult to injury, the health system intends to carry out the proposal on the backs of workers in environmental services, dietary and other behind-the-scenes departments.

All fulfill essential roles in patient care.

Yet because these workers have a low profile, health systems often treat them as expendable and try to cut corners at their expense. Kaiser Permanente's proposed pay scale would start some new workers right around California's minimum wage and suppress their earning potential for the rest of their lives.

"That's not OK. It's disrespectful and an outrage to health care workers everywhere. Everybody deserves a living wage," said Norberto Gomez, vice president of Local 7600.

Instead of urgently seeking an agreement, Kaiser Permanente retaliated against workers by threatening to withhold or cancel contractually obligated time off until the end of the labor dispute. It even stooped to harassing workers who wore union T-shirts.

Like their counterparts in California and across the country, Jackie Anklam and about 620 other workers at Ascension St. Mary's Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, shouldered extra responsibilities during the pandemic.

Greeters repeatedly risked exposure to COVID-19 by handing out fresh masks to all of those entering the hospital. Phlebotomists conducted drive-through coronavirus tests in the facility's parking lots.

And environmental services workers put their lives on the line to sanitize the floors, walls, linens and furnishings of rooms occupied by COVID-19 patients. The hour-long cleanings—conducted in gowns, gloves and goggles—often left the workers drenched in sweat.

Yet, like Garzon and Gomez, Anklam found herself fighting to preserve workers' hard-earned benefits during contract negotiations with ungrateful executives.

"I just think they undervalue the work my members do," said Anklam, president of USW Local 9899. "I don't know why they don't get it. They don't look at the big picture."

The lack of respect only spurred Anklam and her colleagues to fight harder. They stood firm and won wage increases and benefit enhancements.

"The members spoke," Anklam said.

Workers at Kaiser Permanente want nothing more than for the health system to come to its senses and take the steps necessary to avert a strike.

But they realize that they cannot truly care for their patients without also providing for themselves and their families and holding the health system accountable. Right now, with the pandemic still raging, their commitment in the face of shabby treatment is all that keeps dozens of Kaiser Permanente facilities open to the public.

"People are sick and tired, and they've had enough, and they're ready to stand up and fight back," Gomez said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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