August 19, 2022
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Health Care Workers Deserve More Than Applause

For nearly two years, OPEIU health care professionals have been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enduring long hours and mandatory overtime — often without extra compensation — they’ve put their physical and mental health on the line to provide the best patient care possible.

They’ve rightly been called heroes, yet still most of these brave essential workers have not received the compensation for their service they deserve. Instead, they’ve been short-staffed, overworked and underpaid.

Through many surges leaving hospitals at their breaking points, health care workers have been risking their lives and the lives of their families to provide quality, compassionate care to their patients. Most of them have not received compensation for their service and sacrifice.

In interview after interview with White Collar for this article, OPEIU health care workers shared harrowing stories of working through the pandemic. From a lack of PPE in the initial months, to hospitals becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and co- workers contracting the virus, often emotional OPEIU nurses and other professionals spoke of the great physical and emotional toll working in crisis conditions for so long has had on them and their co-workers.

And, all cited staffing shortages — a long- standing problem made even worse by the pandemic — as the biggest challenge they and their facilities face.

“The health care providers caring for individuals in long-term care facilities have been overwhelmed with not only the medical ramifications regarding limited PPE, frequent COVID-19 testing, mandatory overtime, concerns about contracting the virus and bringing it home, but also with the emotional toll that happens on a daily basis when caring for those who become more like family than just someone who is living there,” said Kay Young, a district director with the Michigan Association of Governmental Employees (MAGE)/OPEIU Local 2002, who represents state employees working in long- term care facilities.

Others told similar stories about the difficulty of balancing their responsibilities to patients and their obligations to themselves, their mental health and their families at a time when intensive care unit admissions for COVID-19, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated, are still at worrisome levels. 

Health care workers, in a range of surveys, have reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression and anxiety at levels mirroring the ebb and flow of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, many nurses surveyed reported being overworked — in no small part due to the aforementioned staffing issues — as a major driver of their stress.

Despite being labeled by those on both sides of the political aisle and across the nation as heroes, nurses have gotten the short end of the stick in state legislatures.

Nurses and their unions have been calling for state lawmakers to implement regulations to protect themselves and their patients,
but only one state, New York, has passed significant legislation aimed at meeting nurses' demands during the pandemic.

In June, New York signed into law a safe staffing bill requiring hospitals to form “clinical staffing committees” with nurses involved, and levying financial penalties on hospitals who fail to do so. The state also introduced the Essential Workers Student Grant Act, which provides financial aid grants to students who worked as essential workers during the pandemic. 

While many bills are pending on the floor of state legislatures, the prospect for more protections or compensation for nurses seems slim. But there is hope: New York's safe staffing bill, if successful, could prove to be a model for other statehouses. The committee- based approach to safe staffing, rather than a top-down mandate (much like the state's “fast food wage board,” which was concocted in part to avoid damaging political fights and in 2015 recommended a higher wage for fast food workers) might be an easier sell to lawmakers in politically polarized states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Health care workers have also been demanding their employers fairly compensate them for their sacrifice and service.

Professionals at Kaiser Permanente, including many OPEIU members, have been mobilizing and demanding their employer fairly compensate them for service through what has been dubbed a ‘hero bonus.’ Their efforts have paid off. 

“I’m worried about bringing the virus home to my asthmatic son, my mother who’s battling cancer or my grandmother,” said Johnsolene Caffey, a member of Local 2 and a clinical medical assistant at Kaiser’s Virginia Medical Center in Falls Church. “Kaiser is making billions in profits, and they need to reward those of us on the front lines.”

“During the pandemic, some Kaiser workers have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives,” added Carlene Gonzalez, a licensed practical nurse at Kaiser’s Virginia Medical Center in Tysons Corner and a Local 2 member. “It’s time management honors the front-line workforce with the ‘hero bonus.’”

Kaiser recently announced it is agreeing to staff’s demand for a bonus for all 85,000 members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions across the country. In another major win, Kaiser also said it will extend employees’ COVID-19 paid leave benefits through March 31 and their childcare grants through April 3. The bonus and extended benefits will help retain staff for safe, quality care.

This proves when workers unite and fight through their union, they win!

But so many other health care workers still haven’t received compensation for all their service and sacrifice. Undeterred, they’re staying united and fighting for their patients and co-workers.

Many of the nurses we spoke with said the pandemic had made their unit closer, as they pulled together as a team to care for their patients and help each other get through the worst of the pandemic.

“It brought us closer together as a team,” said Paige Yates, a registered nurse at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock, who is president  of Local 22 and chair of the OPEIU Nurses Council (ONC), which represents the interests of OPEIU’s approximately 25,000 members who work in health care.

“They’ve had to work more with less resources, taking care of more patients with less nurses and staff on the floor,” Yates said. “They've figured out how to do that and still give the quality patient care they want to give. But it’s been extremely stressful for the majority of them.” 
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