Working in health care during a pandemic

Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line as they take care of their patients. Who is taking care of healthcare workers? The answer is the same now is it has been for over 100 years: workers organizing and uniting to demand better pay and working conditions.

A strong union protects both the employee and the patient, says Eva Nolasco, an Endoscopy Tech for a local hospital. She believes that for-profit businesses are more concerned about profits than patient or employee safety. “They are for-profits,” Eva said. They will cut costs to save a penny, that is what they will do.”

She belongs to the Service Employee International Union Local 1199, which covers healthcare workers. The local includes nurse assistants, medical techs, kitchen staff, transport, and housekeeping. Eva is also a member of the Charlotte County chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida.

A major problem for medical staff is they don’t have adequate personal protection equipment. Healthcare workers who treat patients in their rooms have to wear the same protective equipment for their entire shift. This can expose patients and workers as the workers go from patient to patient. Eva knows a co-worker who got infected. “A co-worker, he’s young, a new nurse. He got COVID and then the flu. He got better, and then he got worse, and is now paralyzed.”

Patients are also affected. Eva had a patient who was 78 years old. “She developed a lump but, she didn’t want to go to the hospital to have the lump treated because she was scared about getting COVID.”

Union benefits

“The union gets benefits for workers, such as healthcare, personal protection equipment, and better hours. The union also got COVID pay. If a worker gets COVID or is taking care of someone who has COVID, the worker will be paid,” Eva said.

Employees who are covered by a union enjoy benefits that non-union workers don’t. At Eva’s hospital, housekeeping was subcontracted to a new company. The new company is not unionized, and the “working conditions are not good. “There is so much employee turnover. Workers don’t like the way they are being treated, and the pay is worse,” Eva said.

The benefits a union can obtain for its members depend on employee strength of numbers. At Eva’s hospital, “there is about 70% participation of eligible employees.” Recruiting union members is difficult because Florida is a right to work state. That means that an employee who is not a union member can enjoy the same benefits and rights as a union member. “The non-union members believe they can get the benefits without having to pay the dues. What they don’t understand is that they could have better pay and benefits if they were members.”

The old contract has expired, but they are working under an extension. Local 1199 is trying to negotiate for higher pay. The union hasn’t yet been able to achieve retirement plans such as a pension. “We need more members to fight for that”, Eva said.

“Healthcare workers are dedicated to taking care of their patients and want to make sure they get the best care. “We are there for our patients,” Eva said.

Image Credits: Eva Nolasco