For 22 months, nurses and other health professionals have been on the frontlines of COVID-19. They have been stretched dangerously thin as hospitals overflow. They’ve held phones at patients’ bedsides as family members said their final goodbyes. They’ve cried in their cars after physically and emotionally draining shifts. They’ve pleaded with patients to educate themselves about this virus. Day after day, month after month, and now, year after year.
Throughout, the AFT has been fighting for these heroes and sheroes. Our union, which represents 200,000 nurses and health professionals, bought hundreds of thousands of respirators and other PPE for our locals facing the greatest shortages. We backed healthcare workers—like the members of the Backus Federation of Nurses in Norwich, Connecticut, and of St. Charles United in Bend, Oregon—when they went on strike. We advocated for free vaccines, funding for recovery that became the American Rescue Plan, and the transformational programs in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
Vaccines are a real path to recovery. Unfortunately, misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and the delta variant have slowed our progress. In recent months, a pandemic of the unvaccinated has once again overwhelmed hospitals in countless communities.
To emerge from this pandemic, we must address concerns about the vaccines, but at the same time we must solve the healthcare staffing crisis.
Health professionals must have the working conditions they deserve. In a recent poll of AFT healthcare members, fewer than one in three were satisfied with the conditions facing healthcare workers, and almost 60 percent said that conditions had worsened over the past five years. Inadequate staffing, stress, burnout, and turnover were severe before the pandemic; now they’re at crisis levels. That is top of our agenda.
When it comes to safety, vaccination is the most effective tool to combat COVID-19. That’s why I personally have been urging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and why the AFT’s executive council unanimously approved a resolution to work with our employers on their vaccination policies and requirements, ensuring they’re implemented fairly.
While voluntary vaccination is ideal, a mix of misinformation and understandable hesitancy has kept far too many people from the lifesaving jab. By listening to concerns, making personal connections, and answering questions, many health professionals have helped people choose to get vaccinated to keep themselves and their families safe—it’s behind-the-scenes heroism.
In workplaces where vaccines are required, the AFT is engaged in impact bargaining. For example, an agreement negotiated by the Oregon Nurses Association required vaccination to be at convenient locations and provided time off for side effects; it also ensured that “personal, medical, and religious exemptions shall not be more restrictive than the influenza exemptions.” Similarly, the University Health Professionals in Connecticut bargained for testing and on-site vaccinations during work hours, vaccine exemptions for medical or religious reasons, and testing and enhanced PPE for those granted exemptions.
We’re fighting for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.
In the October 7, 2021, episode of Union Talk, my new podcast, I spoke with three nurses who have given their all throughout this pandemic. Their reality is a horror story: passing refrigerator trucks in the hospital parking lot because the morgue is full, never knowing when their shifts will end because of mandated overtime, and training traveling nurses who are being paid two, three, or more times as much as the dedicated regular staff.
For years, many hospital administrators have maximized profits while squeezing their staff. Nurses have sounded the alarm about unsafe staffing ratios putting patients at risk. The use of traveling nurses during the pandemic shows that money is available—and we’re fighting for it to be invested in the professionals who live in and are committed to their communities.
We can solve the staffing crisis. As Joel Hernandez, RN, said on Union Talk, “Putting your employees before profit—it’s as easy as that. Invest in your employees. Invest in their future. Invest in their happiness. And that will be paid back to your company two-, three-, fourfold.”
Invest in their happiness. That’s the standard our nurses and health professionals deserve. So we will fight for it—and we could start with a well-being index as part of hospital quality assurance measures.
Billboards that say thank you are not enough; our healthcare professionals must be respected, supported, and paid as the heroes and sheroes they are.