When the nurses and home health aides with the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut gathered for breakfast on April 8 at the invitation of Jill Biden, wife of presidential candidate Joe Biden, it was a chance to see one another following the decision by the service to restrict office work in March.
The members were grateful to have allies in the Bidens, who have referred to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis as “heroes” and called the lack of protective gear unacceptable. Joe Biden has a robust plan to combat and minimize the spread of the coronavirus that includes personal protective equipment, paid leave and other provisions that are important to healthcare workers like the ones with VNASC.
“The breakfast was uplifting,” says registered nurse Ann Ryan. “It brought me to tears because it was the first time we had a chance to see and talk to each other in weeks. For a brief moment in our day, everyone was smiling. It was a celebratory moment, and Dr. Biden thanked us for our hard work during this time.”
Such moments are few and far between now. Before the pandemic, the work was more enjoyable. But now, the nurses and aides worry that their interaction with patients puts everyone at risk. The very nature of home health work makes following recommended precautions like social distancing impossible.
“We have no control over who comes and goes from people’s homes. In addition, all of the children are home from school. I assume every patient I see has it,” says Ryan.
The fear that the nurses and aides are feeling is also mixed with guilt. “We are dealing with the most fragile in society—people who are getting care at home to keep them from going into the hospital. I’m so afraid of giving something to the folks in my community,” says registered nurse Martha Marx. “It’s very scary. All day long, we are in fear that we will make others sick. The anxiety is overwhelming, and it’s exhausting.”
The VNASC Local 5119/AFT Connecticut represents 120 registered nurses, school nurses and home health aides. Nearly 10 percent of the nursing staff is out sick but not necessarily with COVID-19 related illness, says Ryan, who is president of the local. In addition, the nurses and aides are caring for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 but were sent home from the hospital.
To protect members, the union leaders negotiated an agreement with the VNA to ensure that workers with symptoms who are tested get paid administrative leave while waiting for test results. Members with a positive result would not have to use paid time off or sick leave. They would get their pay from workers’ compensation or short-term disability, which is 67 percent of pay. Members would get an additional 33 percent paid leave to make them whole.
The nurses and aides have also voiced concerns about personal protective equipment, but the VNA has been slow to respond. “When this started weeks ago, we asked why we weren’t wearing masks,” says Marx, who is vice president of the local at the VNA. Ultimately, the VNA changed course and issued the nurses and aides one surgical mask to use until it was soiled or ruined. In addition, all of the nurses have been fit-tested for N95 respirators to wear with COVID-19 patients.
Both Ryan and Marx look for the bright side in all of this. Ryan finds the expressions of support for healthcare workers from her neighbors inspiring. “You never think of yourself as a hero, but I look forward to the day when this is all over. We are not yet at the peak of this pandemic but we are trying to make a difference.”
Marx agrees. The way she sees it is that workers and unions are making a difference by fighting for better working conditions and sharing what they are experiencing in the field. “The pandemic has brought us closer, and when we come out on the other side of this our unions will be stronger.”