By TIM ROWDEN
With COVID-19 cases spiking across the region, and hospitals nearing capacity, frontline healthcare workers who have been sounding the alarm about the risks for months are demanding better protections and hazard pay.
Workers at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital, represented by SEIU Healthcare Missouri, are demanding the hospital utilize safety stewards to assist in addressing safety issues within the facility, provide workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and provide hazard pay.
Amy Jones, a rehabilitation technician and certified nursing assistant at the hospital, contracted COVID-19 in March after interacting with a patient she didn’t know was positive for the virus.
Jones was fortunate to have only had mild symptoms, including a fever, she said. But she had to isolate from her husband and others for two weeks in their home because he has diabetes, placing him at high-risk for more serious complications from the virus.
‘IT WAS PURE HELL’
“I had to be in a room without my husband. I was in a room and he was in a room and whoever else was in the house, they were in a room. I couldn’t use the same bathroom as everybody else. The dishes I ate from couldn’t be used by anybody else. Everything bleached and sanitized. It was pure hell, but that’s what we had to do.”
Jones and other union members at SLU Hospital have been pushing since May demanding proper PPE and for hazard pay for workers who putting themselves at risk and working longer hours because of lack of available staff.
“A lot of people aren’t taking it seriously because they think they can’t get it, but it is very serious,” Jones said. “I see it every day.
“As a worker, I come in contact with a Covid patient every day,” she said. “Yet, management doesn’t consider workers like me eligible to get an N95 mask, the kind that is best to protect me from the virus. They are saying that we really don’t need to wear N95 masks. But I caught COVID-19 and some of my coworkers did, too, because we came in contact with a patient that we didn’t know was infected.”
Jones and others SLU Hospital workers have been holding socially distanced rallies and demonstration outside the hospital since May demanding proper PPE and hazard pay. They’ve collected signatures on a petition they presented to hospital management and wear “Hazard Pay Now” buttons at work.
SEIU Healthcare represents about 665 workers at SLU hospital, including 115 who are contracted through Sodexo, which provides food service at the hospital. The union also represents workers at Touchette Regional Hospital in Centreville, Ill., and at 26 area nursing homes.
Laura Barrett, campaign coordinator for SEIU Healthcare Missouri, said half of the St. Louis-area nursing homes where SEIU represents staff have implemented hazard pay salary increases or given a hazard pay bonus to workers since the pandemic began, but none of the hospitals have.
Shunda Whitfield, a certified nursing assistance at Estates of Spanish Lake nursing home, also caught COVID-19 on the job. She has Lupus, an autoimmune disease, and said she is still struggling with the after effects of the virus.
“It’s not just in my job,” Whitfield said. “It’s not just where we work. It’s in our homes, it’s in our churches, it’s in our stores. Everywhere I go, people I love are at risk and more and more of them are getting ill.”
In addition to hazard pay and adequate protective equipment, SEIU is also pushing for paid time-off and better COVID-19 leave policies, she said, adding that adequate PPE remains a concern at several facilities.
“It’s happened to several of our workers at nursing homes that they have to choose between going to work with COVID or not getting paid,” Barrett said. “They are working long hours and under so much stress facing this crisis, but they are having to struggle financially because of it. It’s not right.”
ILLINOIS HEALTHCARE WORKERS STRIKE
In Illinois, nearly 700 nursing home workers represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois went on strike last week at 11 Infinity Healthcare Management facilities in the Chicago area, saying they won’t return until the company offers them higher wages and safer working conditions.