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Pennsylvania Nurses Near Their Breaking Point

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On top of the typical stresses, intense work, and long hours common to the profession, nurses working at smaller hospitals in more remote parts of the country face many unique challenges. With fewer staff and 24?–?7 services, facilities like the two Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, rely on nurses, nursing assistants, and other staff to perform many jobs simultaneously with little rest. But when nurses begin to leave for better working conditions and the hospital does not replace them, those who remain are put under even more strain, which endangers them and their patients. 

For workers with Schuylkill Hospital Nurses United, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In this episode, we talk with two Schuylkill County nurses, Brandee Brown and Chrissy Newton, and Seth Goldstein from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, about the day-to-day grind of working at small-town hospitals while also combatting union-busting and bad-faith bargaining from management at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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ABB, EPI, and NELP Release Toolkit For Advocates and Policymakers On Model Policies Local Governments Can Implement to Raise Standards For Frontline Workers During COVID and Beyond

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Washington, DC— Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), A Better Balance (ABB), and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a toolkit for advocates and policymakers featuring four model policies that cities and counties can implement immediately to respond to workers’ calls for safety and dignity on the job—in the pandemic and beyond. The four model policies would advance premium pay, paid sick days, COVID-19 worker health and safety, and protection against retaliation.

Over a year into the COVID-19 crisis, federal law still does not guarantee workers premium pay for working on the frontlines during emergencies; the right to paid days off when they or family members are sick; enforceable COVID-19 health and safety protections; and adequate protection against being punished for speaking up on the job about unsafe conditions or violations of their rights. Far too many state laws and corporate policies also fall short when it comes to these standards.

Occupational segregation has disproportionately pushed Black and Latinx workers, the majority of them women, into underpaid, yet always essential, jobs that are now on the frontlines of the pandemic. Across the country, workers of color have tied their demands for pandemic protections to fights for racial, gender, and economic justice.

While the Biden administration has begun to address some of the gaps the Trump administration and Congress left in responding to our communities’ calls, a chasm remains. But city and county governments can step in right now to enact laws and policies that will help keep workers and the public safe during the ongoing pandemic and beyond. The new model policy toolkit from NELP, ABB, and EPI includes four model laws that cities and counties can and must adopt to heed workers’ calls:Emergency premium pay for frontline workers; a permanent right to paid sick leave with additional time off during a declared public health emergency; health and safety protections for certain frontline workers who will not be protected by upcoming OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19 , including app-based workers and domestic workers; and anti-retaliation protections to ensure workers can speak up about job conditions and enforce their rights safely during this crisis and after. This, too, is about racial justice—a recent survey from NELP found that Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report that they or someone at work may have been punished or fired for raising concerns about COVID-19 spreading in the workplace.

The model laws in the toolkit are designed so localities can adapt them to meet local needs.

“The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the laws ensuring the safety of workers, unemployed people, and our communities overall are woefully inadequate. And because our lives are all so deeply intertwined, what affects one worker affects all of us—when a grocery store cashier doesn’t feel safe bringing up concerns about lacking COVID-19 safety precautions at work, and then workers get sick, the spread continues into the community. Unfortunately, we are not out of this yet, and cities must hear workers’ calls and step in now,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon.

“Without paid sick leave and strong workplace health and safety standards, millions of individuals around the country are forced to sacrifice their personal and family health, or risk their income when they need it most. At A Better Balance, through our free legal helpline, we hear every day from working individuals whose experiences show how the pandemic has sharply exacerbated our nation’s longstanding crisis of care, with especially harsh consequences for low-wage workers and women of color. Local governments have a critical role to play in passing robust policies to protect workers’ health and safety and enable them to care for themselves and their loved ones,” says A Better Balance Co-Founder and Co-President Sherry Leiwant.

“Strong economies require standards that ensure workers are safe and paid fairly. Over the past year, people in frontline jobs have put their lives on the line with little bargaining power to demand higher pay or safer workplaces. They deserve basic protections to keep them and their families safe, as well as pay that compensates them for the added risk they’re taking in order to keep the economy going,” says EPI Senior Economic Analyst David Cooper.

Ultimately, the pandemic has laid bare how deeply structural racism and long-standing anti-worker policy impacts every corner of our society—and how little our laws protect workers, and especially workers of color in underpaid, frontline jobs. But there is also a tremendous opportunity here: Local governments can play a critical role in building a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, by taking steps to advance worker and community safety and dignity, during this crisis and beyond.

Download the model local policy toolkit now

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This blog originally appeared at NELP on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About A Better Balance 

A Better Balance, a national, nonprofit advocacy organization, uses the power of the law to advance justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security. To learn more, visit abetterbalance.org and follow A Better Balance on Twitter @ABetterBalance.

About the Economic Policy Institute

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security.To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America. EPI proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers and assesses policies with respect to how they affect those workers.

About National Employment Law Project
The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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Grocery workers, heroes of the pandemic, left out on vaccinations, this week in the war on workers

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“Grocery workers say they can’t get coronavirus vaccines, even as they help distribute them,” the Washington Post headline reads. But as the story makes clear, grocery workers don’t “say” they can’t get vaccines. They can’t. Unless they are elderly or have comorbidities in addition to being grocery workers—i.e., unless they are eligible for vaccination for reasons other than being among the front-line workers who have kept us all going this last nearly a year—grocery workers don’t get vaccination priority except in 13 states. Meanwhile, pharmacies in some grocery stores are administering the vaccinations the workers can’t get.

“Of course health-care workers should get the vaccine first, that’s not a question,” one California worker said. “But how many people am I exposed to in a day? Hundreds. Sick or well? I don’t know. Customers come in with masks under their nose, sipping their coffee as they walk around.”

In 11 states there’s no plan to give grocery workers any priority for vaccination, while in Tennessee they’re at the same priority level as overnight camp counselors.

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This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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The Year That Labor Hung On By Its Fingertips

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A lot of things hap­pened for work­ing peo­ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a year as deranged as 2020, the broad­er themes that afflict and ener­gize the labor move­ment have car­ried on. If you are read­ing this, con­grat­u­la­tions: There is still time for you to do some­thing about all of these things. Here is a brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev­er have to live through some­thing like it again.

The pan­dem­ic

Broad­ly speak­ing, there have been two very large labor sto­ries this year. The first is, ?“I have been forced into unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” And the sec­ond is, ?“I have been forced to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” America’s labor reporters spent most of our year writ­ing vari­a­tions of these sto­ries, in each com­pa­ny and in each indus­try and in each city. Those sto­ries con­tin­ue to this day. 

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment left work­ing peo­ple utter­ly for­sak­en. They did not cre­ate a nation­al wage replace­ment sys­tem to pay peo­ple to stay home, as many Euro­pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin­ter­est­ed in work­place safe­ty relat­ed to coro­n­avirus. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress were more intent on get­ting lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for employ­ers than on doing any­thing, any­thing at all, that might help des­per­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec­es­sar­i­ly politi­cized pub­lic health, lead­ing direct­ly to hun­dreds of thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths and the eco­nom­ic destruc­tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg­er polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to pro­tect work­ers did not do their jobs. The labor move­ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed. 

Front-line work­ers

The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work­ers, our deliv­ery peo­ple and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and bus dri­vers, our para­medics and nurs­es, our cooks and clean­ers and gro­cery work­ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel­e­brate reg­u­lar work­ers who had to push through dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil­dren draw signs cel­e­brat­ing you. But will you get paid for this?

How well have unions rep­re­sent­ing these front line work­ers done this year? In many cas­es, not well. I think first of the gro­cery work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW, who were gen­er­al­ly award­ed with tem­po­rary ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es rather than actu­al rais­es. Or of the UFCW’s meat­pack­ing work­ers, whose plants were encour­aged to stay open by an exec­u­tive order, and who suf­feredter­ri­bly from the coro­n­avirus and from management’s utter dis­dain for their wel­fare. These are work­ers who, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the ear­ly phase of the pan­dem­ic, had a ton of lever­age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask­ing for basic safe­ty and fair pay for risk­ing their lives, the pub­lic would have neared pan­ic, and their demands prob­a­bly would have been met. Their employ­ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out­cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat­pack­ing work­ers con­tin­ued to suf­fer, and the gro­cery work­ers saw their ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es dis­ap­pear, and here we are. 

The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter, most unions have spent this year scram­bling des­per­ate­ly to keep them­selves and their work­ers afloat, and have been flood­ed with the task of deal­ing with the cat­a­stro­phe that has cost mil­lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri­ous post­mortem about what could and should have been done bet­ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail­ure of front line work­ers to turn their new­found hero sta­tus?—?and the tem­po­rary, absolute neces­si­ty that they con­tin­ue work­ing through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions?—?into any last­ing gains. It is easy to sur­ren­der to the feel­ing of just being thank­ful to be employed while oth­ers sink into pover­ty. But we need to be ready with a bet­ter plan for next time. Bil­lions of dol­lars and a good deal of poten­tial pow­er that work­ing peo­ple could have had has evap­o­rat­ed because unions were not pre­pared to act to take it. 

Pub­lic workers

Teach­ers unions con­clu­sive­ly demon­strat­ed their val­ue this year. In gen­er­al, in cities with strong teach­ers unions, pub­lic schools did not reopen unless the teach­ers were sat­is­fied that ade­quate work­place safe­ty pro­ce­dures were in place. (In prac­tice this meant that many school dis­tricts sim­ply kept instruc­tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par­ents, they should think it through: Work­place safe­ty in Amer­i­ca only exist­ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap­pened. Schools were the most promi­nent exam­ple of that. 

Else­where, the news for fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees was gloomy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed­er­al employ­ee unions in par­tic­u­lar, and state employ­ee unions in Repub­li­can states, have become pathet­i­cal­ly weak. Much of their bar­gain­ing pow­er has been out­lawed by Repub­li­can politi­cians. The unions have been reduced to writ­ing polite­ly angry let­ters as their work­ers are abused while wait­ing for a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work­able mod­el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will­ing to break the law in order to assert the fun­da­men­tal rights of their mem­bers, or they will grow increas­ing­ly less able to demon­strate to mem­bers why they have any value. 

That may not be fair, but it’s the truth. 

Orga­niz­ing

The biggest issue for unions in Amer­i­ca?—?big­ger than any pan­dem­ic or pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle?—?is that there are sim­ply not enough union mem­bers. Only one in 10 work­ers is a union mem­ber. In the pri­vate sec­tor, that fig­ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den­si­ty is the under­ly­ing thing rob­bing the once-mighty labor move­ment (and by exten­sion, the work­ing class itself) of pow­er. If unions in Amer­i­ca are not grow­ing every year, they are dying. 

Dis­as­trous years like 2020 tend to put struc­tur­al issues on the back burn­er, but they can also serve as inspi­ra­tions for peo­ple to join unions to pro­tect them. The annu­al fig­ures for the year are not out yet, but anec­do­tal­ly, union lead­ers and orga­niz­ers are opti­mistic that the pandemic’s hav­oc will serve as fuel for future orga­niz­ing. Most unions man­aged to at least con­tin­ue major orga­niz­ing efforts that were already under­way this year, like SEIU’s suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of a 17-year bat­tle to union­ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­tries that were already hotbeds of orga­niz­ing tend­ed to remain so. The safe­ty net of a union con­tract clear­ly demon­strat­ed its val­ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil­i­ty of union mem­bers to nego­ti­ate terms for fur­loughs and sev­er­ance and recall rights and all the oth­er things that mat­ter dur­ing dis­as­ters, as non-union work­ers were sim­ply cast out on their own. 

Still, it is up to unions them­selves to have a con­cert­ed plan to take advan­tage of the wide­spread nation­al suf­fer­ing and chan­nel it into new orga­niz­ing. Since unions have spent the year trans­fixed by the elec­tion and by try­ing to respond to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, it is safe to say that such a con­cert­ed plan does not real­ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been wasted. 

Strikes

Dur­ing the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, a frag­ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri­sis was such that most work­ers were sim­ply try­ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail­ures of employ­ers became more clear, that peace began to evap­o­rate. Teach­ers unions around the coun­try used cred­i­ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open­ing plans. And in the health­care indus­try, unions have had mul­ti­ple strikes, as nurs­es and hos­pi­tal work­ers have passed their break­ing points.

Lever­age for work­ers varies wide­ly by indus­try right now, as cer­tain indus­tries are besieged with unem­ployed work­ers look­ing for any job they can get (restau­rants), and oth­ers are des­per­ate for skilled work­ers, who are extreme­ly vital (nurs­es). At min­i­mum, every union should look at its lever­age in the spe­cif­ic con­text of the pan­dem­ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor­tu­ni­ty be lost forever.

Gig work­ers

You can think of many enor­mous com­pa­nies as huge algo­rithms that are mak­ing their way through the Amer­i­can labor force, turn­ing employ­ees into inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or free­lancers or part-timers. There is mon­ey to be made in free­ing busi­ness­es from the respon­si­bil­i­ty and cost of pro­vid­ing for employ­ees (a sta­tus that comes with ben­e­fits and a host of work­place rights, includ­ing the right to union­ize). The ?“gig econ­o­my” is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth­er com­pa­nies that exclu­sive­ly work in that space?—?it is an eco­nom­ic force of nature push­ing every com­pa­ny, includ­ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some­thing less than a full employee. 

Coun­ter­ing this force is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant legal and leg­isla­tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher­ent­ly acts to dis­solve labor pow­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most impor­tant thing that hap­pened on the issue this year was the pas­sage of Prop 22 in Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cal­ly designed to empow­er the gig econ­o­my com­pa­nies to the detri­ment of work­ers. Scari­er yet is the fact that the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia will now be used as a blue­print for state leg­is­la­tion around the coun­try. Com­pa­nies are pre­pared to spend hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars on this issue, because they save far more mon­ey on the back end and pre­serve their busi­ness mod­el, which depends in large part in extract­ing wealth that once went to work­ers and redi­rect­ing it towards investors. Either Amer­i­ca will have a nation­al reck­on­ing with what the gig econ­o­my is doing to us, or we will con­tin­ue bar­rel­ing towards a dystopi­an future of the Uber-iza­tion of every last indus­try. Includ­ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work­er coop, it is now. 

The elec­tion and Washington

After an ear­ly peri­od of hope for a Bernie-led insur­gency of the left, unions coa­lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon­ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat­form are both more defin­i­tive­ly pro-union than any pres­i­dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe­ri­ence tells us that they will not get many of them. 

What they will prob­a­bly get: a much bet­ter NLRB, a func­tion­ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart­ment rather than the oppo­site, and, par­tic­u­lar­ly for unions with long­stand­ing ties to Biden, rel­a­tive­ly good access to the White House. What they prob­a­bly won’t get: pas­sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob­lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid­ed Con­gress. (And, I sus­pect, even with full Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress, many of the more cen­trist Democ­rats would sud­den­ly find a rea­son to oppose the act if the Cham­ber of Com­merce ever thought it might actu­al­ly pass). It is true that the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is slow­ly mov­ing left, but Biden is a man who nat­u­ral­ly stays in the mid­dle of every­one, and he will be con­ser­v­a­tive in his will­ing­ness to burn polit­i­cal cap­i­tal by push­ing pro-labor poli­cies that don’t enjoy some amount of pub­lic bipar­ti­san sup­port. The polit­i­cal cli­mate for unions will be sim­i­lar to what it was under Oba­ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro­pelled by peo­ple in the streets. 

The nine-month odyssey between the pas­sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con­gress actu­al­ly passed is a use­ful demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of labor’s lob­by­ing pow­er. While par­tic­u­lar unions, espe­cial­ly those in trans­porta­tion and the USPS, showed skill at get­ting con­crete mate­r­i­al gains for their mem­bers into bills, the inabil­i­ty to force any sort of time­ly action from Con­gress in the face of mas­sive human suf­fer­ing shows that labor as a spe­cial inter­est will nev­er have the polit­i­cal pow­er it craves. Until many, many more Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers, it will be impos­si­ble to break out of this trap.

The labor move­ment at its high­est lev­el must break itself of the addic­tion to the false belief that sal­va­tion will be found if only our Demo­c­rat can win the next elec­tion. It won’t. Orga­nize mil­lions of new work­ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must be dragged towards progress by an army, and our army is weak. The AFL-CIO got burned in the protests this year. It remains to be seen if it learned any­thing from that. 

End­ing on a pos­i­tive note

It may be the per­pet­u­al nature of unions that the lead­er­ship is often dis­ap­point­ing, but the grass­roots are always inspir­ing. The big pic­ture for orga­nized labor in 2020 has been… close to okay, in some aspects, but cer­tain­ly not great. But when you pull out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and look at what indi­vid­ual work­ers and work­places and units are doing, you will find thou­sands and thou­sands of inspir­ing things. And not even a pan­dem­ic has changed the basic fact that orga­niz­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that reg­u­lar peo­ple have at their dis­pos­al in a sys­tem that val­ues cap­i­tal over humanity.

If you are an employ­ee, you can union­ize your work­place. If you are a gig or tem­po­rary work­er, you can orga­nize with your cowork­ers. If you are unem­ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union­ize your next job. All the labor move­ment is is all of us.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: ATU Calls on Governors to Prioritize Front-Line Transit Workers in Vaccine Distribution

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

With hundreds of transit workers killed, including 96 ATU members, from COVID-19, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has called on governors across the United States to prioritize front-line transit workers in the first rounds of COVID-19 vaccin­­e distributions. ATU International President John Costa wrote a letter to every governor to inform them of the request and offer logistical support in vaccine distribution. “The recent promising news of multiple quality vaccines for the coronavirus has lifted the spirits of all Americans, including the hundreds of thousands of transportation workers who have been on the front lines working through this very dark period in our nation’s history,” Costa wrote in the letter to governors. “On behalf of the ATU, the labor organization representing the majority of these brave workers, we urge you to provide early vaccine access and availability for our members in the transit and school bus industries.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is an AFL-CIO contributor.


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How Americans Can Help the Frontline Workers Battling COVID-19

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Chad Longpre Shepersky repeatedly took COVID-19 tests—and waited on pins and needles for results each time—during a coronavirus outbreak at Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Longpre Shepersky, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), never contracted the virus. But he watched in agony as dozens of his patients and coworkers fell ill and fought for their lives.

As a weary nation enters the holiday season, Americans have an opportunity to help health care workers like Longpre Shepersky and start bringing the raging pandemic under control.

Consistently wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions will slow COVID-19’s spread and provide much-needed relief to the frontline workers battling burnout as well as the virus.

“Everyone should do their part,” insisted Longpre Shepersky, financial secretary and steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9349, which represents workers at Guardian Angels. “Just the other day, I witnessed people in Walmart not wearing masks or following 6-foot distancing. Too many people aren’t doing what they can to fight the virus.”

As infection rates soar to their highest levels nationwide, 10 months into the pandemic, it continues to take a disproportionately deadly toll on frail, vulnerable nursing home residents and the people who care for them.

So many residents and workers at Guardian Angels contracted the virus that the Minnesota National Guard sent a five-person medical team in October to help keep the 90-bed facility operating. Even then, as he worried about his own safety and mourned the deaths of several patients, Longpre Shepersky logged grueling amounts of overtime to fill in for ill colleagues.

“It got to the point where you dreaded going to work because you didn’t know what the day was going to bring,” recalled Longpre Shepersky, a CNA for 21 years who considers his coworkers and patients a second family. “But there was no one else there to do it. I just pulled up my big boy pants and went in to work and got through the day.”

Many nursing home workers endured staffing shortages at their facilities long before the pandemic. Because of low Medicaid payments for patient care, among other reasons, facilities paid low wages, skimped on staff or battled chronic turnover.

When COVID-19 struck, turnover and staff sicknesses compounded the chronic understaffing.

Now, nursing home workers struggle to stay physically and psychologically healthy while putting in extra shifts to ensure residents receive the highest quality care around-the-clock. Besides longer hours, many also took on additional responsibilities, such as serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from visitors during facility lockdowns.

These everyday heroes feel stretched to the breaking point. Many nursing home workers and other health care professionals report unprecedented levels of burnout and other mental health concerns as they worry not only about their own safety but the fate of their patients and the possibility of bringing the virus home to their own family members.

“I try to go in with a positive mindset,” explained Shirley Richardson, unit president for USW Local 7898, which represents workers at the 220-bed Veterans’ Victory House in Walterboro, South Carolina. “The main object is being safe. I try to stay focused. I don’t let little things get to me.”

“It’s going to get better,” she reminds coworkers who’ve endured about two dozen cases of COVID-19, including the deaths of several patients and a nurse, at their facility. “This can’t go on forever. We just have to work through it.”

The pandemic highlighted the essential work that nursing home staff members perform—and the necessity of treating them as essential workers from now on.

That will require fixing the nation’s health care system—even if that means allocating additional tax dollars—so that nursing homes receive adequate payment for their services. Then the facilities can hire and retain adequate numbers of workers—and provide hazard pay and paid sick leave to ensure staffing remains at high levels during emergencies.

“It’s just the staffing that’s been the worst part of this year,” explained Chris Sova, unit president for USW Local 15301-1, which represents nurses at Bay County Medical Care Facility in Essexville, Michigan.

“I feel like a zombie, almost. I honestly don’t know how we do it anymore,” marveled Sova, a third-generation nursing home worker, who described his routine some weeks as, “Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Wake up. Go to work.”

It infuriates Sova to know that while he and his coworkers put their lives on the line every day, some Americans refuse to take simple steps to slow the virus’ spread.

Across the country, some people fail to wear masks even as infection rates in their own communities skyrocket and strain the capacity of local hospitals.

So far, at least 259,000 Americans died of COVID-19, more than 65,000 of them in nursing homes. Universal mask-wearing, according to one new study, could prevent 130,000 more deaths in the U.S. in coming months.

“People wear seatbelts, but they have a big thing about face masks?” Sova fumed.

Longpre Shepersky faces the upcoming holidays with trepidation, realizing that the family gatherings and parties Americans long for so earnestly this year also present additional opportunities for spreading the virus.

The residents at Guardian Angels wear masks whenever they leave their rooms, and because of the risk of another outbreak, they also could face limits on visitors this holiday season.

If they can make sacrifices to help contain the virus, other Americans can as well.

“Everyone definitely has to take this seriously,” Longpre Shepersky said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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


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