The last two years have been intense and stressful for healthcare workers. Still, the AFT's healthcare members have been the backbone of our nation’s healthcare system, said Vicky Byrd, chair of the AFT Nurses and Health Professionals program and policy council and an AFT vice president, during a divisional meeting on July 14 at the AFT 2022 Convention in Boston. Despite the profession’s turbulent times, the collective voice of union members continues to grow and is more important than ever. “You are the guardians of our profession, our patients and the quality of care they receive," said Byrd.
The AFT’s healthcare division made significant progress in the last two years at the federal, state and local levels. One of the most difficult challenges for healthcare members was the fight to get the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect them from COVID-19. Although the AFT’s advocacy succeeded in achieving the standard, it eventually expired and the fight shifted to making the standard permanent. Members have provided testimonials about why the standard is necessary and affiliates have filed numerous OSHA complaints. The NHP division has also encouraged affiliates to establish relationships with their local or regional OSHA offices.
Securing personal protective equipment for affiliates to distribute to members has been another priority for the division, particularly during the pandemic’s initial surge. In addition, the division provided resources to help members and a forum for leaders to share their experiences.
The division also played a big role in securing funds for hazard pay for healthcare and other frontline workers, and in ensuring that funds to address burnout and stress in healthcare were included in the federal American Rescue Plan. Now, AFT is leading the pursuit of federal workplace violence prevention legislation.
In the area of mental health and moral injury, the AFT is working with George Washington University on a qualitative study called Moral Injury Among Nurses: Stories of Fractured Hearts and Wounded Souls. Staffing shortages, a longstanding problem in healthcare, have been exacerbated by the pandemic and are a major contributor to moral injury.
When the pandemic hit, there was an exodus of healthcare workers from the profession, said Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey. “Our workers were traumatized; many left, and now we’re in a crisis,” said White, who is also an AFT vice president. White discussed the Staffing Shortage Task Force, which was created to examine the state of the healthcare workforce and come up with recommendations for policymakers, employers and unions to ensure that healthcare facilities are appropriately staffed, improving working conditions and patient care.
Even though working in healthcare has been challenging in the last two years, affiliates across the country have enjoyed a number of organizing and collective bargaining victories. Kelly Nedrow, director of AFT’s Health Issues department, took a moment to thank the school nurses in the room for their efforts, noting that they worked tirelessly during the pandemic, doing contact tracing and setting up safety protocols in addition to their regular duties. The meeting concluded with a round of moving poetry and storytelling by members.
[Adrienne Coles/photo by Pamela Wolfe]