Where We Stand: Caring for Healthcare Workers — Our Path from Surviving to Healing to Thriving

By Randi Weingarten

AFT Health Care

After a year like no other—filled with so much hardship and trauma—I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the AFT’s healthcare workers. Recently, I spent time with some of those healthcare workers in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington to say thank you and to listen to the nurses, respiratory techs, transporters, doctors, and others who are on the frontlines fighting COVID-19.

The pandemic has taken a terrible toll in the United States: 562,066 deaths as of April 12. At least 3,600 of these lives lost were healthcare workers who contracted the virus on the job. As we all yearn to get this nightmare over, we must honor the memories of those who perished and comfort their loved ones.

But it’s not just the deaths. It’s what healthcare workers have endured—working extra shifts to handle surges of patients, fighting fears that they will bring COVID-19 home to their families, enduring acute shortages of personal protective equipment by reusing masks or using garbage bags as gowns, being the only one often who could hold a patient’s hand, having to tell family after family that their loved one did not pull through. Every time I put on a mask or encourage people to get vaccinated, I think of those healthcare workers.

The term burnout does not capture the trauma. Honking for heroes is not enough.

AFT Health CareOur nation’s healthcare workers have experienced moral injury—and we must support their healing. That is the course the AFT is embarking on. It starts with fixing our healthcare system: healthcare is a human right and must be treated that way. We need a well-resourced delivery system, with equitable access across communities, and robust staffing and technology so that providers have the resources to deliver the best care for their patients. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it has made clear that we need a renewed focus on public health and family well-being.

As Patricia Pittman explains in this issue, “This combination is how many countries—especially wealthy nations—have achieved healthier populations and lower healthcare costs than the United States.”

Making these changes will not be easy, but I have hope. President Biden has jettisoned the chaos and replaced it with a White House that is competent and compassionate.
Biden’s American Rescue Plan is literally a lifeline for working families and our economy—a down payment on ensuring every person in America has the freedom to thrive. Included in the $1.9 trillion plan, which will cut child poverty in half, are

  • $49 billion for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and research, and $14 billion to speed vaccine distribution.
  • $24 billion for community health centers, a public health workforce, and rural healthcare providers, plus $8.5 billion for rural hospitals.
  • $140 million to support healthcare professionals’ mental health and $200 million for pandemic-related worker protections.
  • $350 billion to state and local governments, which can be used to fund the premium pay healthcare workers deserve.
  • Lower premiums for millions who buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.
  • 100 percent subsidies for continuation of job-based health coverage (COBRA) for those who have lost employer-sponsored healthcare and, through September 6, $300 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits.
  • $1,400 in direct payments to the vast majority of Americans, enhanced earned-income and child tax credits, and support for childcare for essential workers.

This relief package is already helping families have the vaccines and financial support we need to pull through this pandemic together. It’s helping us open schools and keep them open. But after this down payment, we need a full recovery in which we build back better.

That’s what Biden’s ambitious American Jobs Plan is designed to do.

This $2 trillion investment will create millions of good-paying jobs and focus our economy on working families. With critical health and wellness provisions—like $400 billion to expand the home-care workforce, over $100 billion to remove mold and other hazards from education facilities, $45 billion to replace all lead pipes, and $30 billion for pandemic preparedness—this plan jump-starts our economic engine by rebuilding our physical and care infrastructure.

As I reflect on this grueling year, I am full of gratitude for the healthcare workers who sustained us throughout this crisis. And I look forward with hope—determined to ensure that our healthcare heroes get much-needed support and that science and government are harnessed for the common good.


 

AFT Health Care, Spring 2021
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