For six long months, Maryland’s health care workers have been putting their health and the health of their families at risk to care for us during the COVID-19 pandemic. On this Labor Day, lawmakers need to show up for the health care workers who show up for us.
The Maryland General Assembly is not scheduled to meet again until January. However, as the pandemic continues into the fall, our lawmakers should convene a special session so they can pass laws that protect and support the workers we have rightfully been calling health care heroes for months.
Nurses, medical aides, technicians, food preparers, housekeepers, and home health aides — who are especially vulnerable as non-union caregivers — have been facing tremendous stress and risks as they fight a deadly virus and try to keep themselves and their families safe. Many of these heroes are people of color. At a time when Black Lives Matter movements push for real solutions to the life-threatening consequences of systemic racism, now is an especially apt moment to pass laws that support the people who take care of us when we are sick.
As members of the nation’s largest health care workers union, caregivers with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East have been fighting for safer conditions because of their experiences on the frontlines of the pandemic.
These experiences include a nurse in an Intensive Care Unit who was not given enough gowns. When patients were bleeding badly, he would cover his gown with a trash bag to protect himself from bodily fluids. They also include a nursing assistant who caught COVID-19 at work and was out sick for six weeks.
Because of a lack of protective policies and additional pay, she had to file for unemployment to have enough money to pay for housing, groceries, and bills. That meant filing for unemployment while experiencing head-to-toe aches and pains, exhaustion, loss of taste and smell, and a high fever. Another nursing home worker received her positive COVID-19 test results a full month after being tested at work. Because she was asymptomatic, she had been caring for her patients as well as her young child for the month, putting everyone at risk.
Indeed, many of our members play this dual role of patient and family caretaker. For example, a housekeeper who cleans rooms in an Intensive Care Unit has experienced months of acute stress about contracting the virus because her son is a cancer survivor and asthmatic who has a compromised immune system. As his primary caretaker, she cannot isolate from her son to keep him safe.
Based on these experiences, health care workers have been very clear about what they need to keep their patients and families safe — crisis pay, free and reliable testing, and plenty of protective gear.
Crisis pay is much-needed additional compensation for workers who have taken on increased risk, stress, and expenses during this crisis. Such pay could help ensure appropriate staffing levels for health care facilities. Crisis pay could also cover the cost of childcare, transportation, and the life adjustments that many health care workers have to make — frequent laundry, grocery delivery, or isolation from vulnerable family members. Despite these benefits, many facilities have not funded additional pay, even as they received hundreds of millions of dollars for COVID-19-related expenses from the federal CARES Act.
Maryland’s early experiences with shortages of protective gear and spikes in cases, especially in our nursing homes, should have taught us all a stark lesson — that it is critical for everyone’s safety to have stockpiles of protective gear coupled with free, reliable, and rapid testing. Despite these experiences, the Maryland Department of Health has mandated testing for nursing homes but has stopped paying for coronavirus testing for nursing home staff last month, while too many nursing home workers are still being asked to re-use their protective gear outside of established safety recommendations.
Meeting these needs would go a long way to protect both communities and caregivers as we brace for a new wave of COVID-19 this fall and winter. With the new season on the horizon, it is critical that our political leaders support our healthcare workers.
That is why the Maryland General Assembly should convene a special session to pass laws that ensure that all healthcare workers have what they need to safely fight the pandemic. Our health care workers, their patients, and their families simply cannot wait until early next spring for the protections they need today.
— LISA BROWN
The writer is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East for the Maryland/D.C. region.