WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Teachers—which represents nearly 200,000 nurses, respiratory specialists, health techs, physicians and other professionals in the healthcare industry, as well as food service workers, bus drivers, custodians, child care workers, rec center workers, and countless other educators and public employees on the frontlines of the pandemic—has purchased lifesaving personal protective equipment for its members. In response to those members’ steady cries since mid-March, pleading for the personal protective gear necessary to keep them safe as they protect, feed, educate, engage and care for the American public, the AFT has launched numerous lobbying, advertising, petition and demonstration efforts to protect them. But the need is still urgent, as a nurse tried to explain to President Trump in the Oval Office yesterday, despite his objections.
To meet this need, over the last six weeks, the union has purchased 500,000 N95s, 50,000 face shields, and more than 1 million surgical masks from 3M and additional overseas manufacturers to help protect its members fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The items, totaling a nearly $3 million investment by the union, will be distributed over the next several weeks to healthcare providers in facilities across the country, including in New York, Washington, Oregon and New Jersey, in consultation with leaders from each state and using a formula to get the PPE to the highest-need areas. The union will also distribute nearly 100,000 of the surgical masks donated from the U.S. Heartland China Association to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the United Food and Commercial Workers in South Dakota.
The procurement of the supplies was sourced and negotiated directly by the union, amid growing concern that its members were endangering themselves and their own families without the necessary equipment. Empire Global Ventures volunteered its services to help locate, ship and deliver the masks and face shields, and the assistance of CEO Alexandra Stanton and President Sam Natapoff proved instrumental in getting the equipment to the right place. The AFT notes that while it faced many of the difficulties reported in the news recently, it worked for weeks to ensure strict quality controls and to facilitate the production and delivery of the much-needed equipment as quickly as possible. The AFT’s New York state affiliate, New York State United Teachers, is partnering on a portion of the order, while the New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers, is warehousing a portion of it as well. Several other local affiliates have sourced and donated equipment to facilities in their areas, including United University Professions and the New York State Public Employees Federation. (Photos of AFT President Randi Weingarten and UFT Vice President Anne Goldman unloading the supplies at the UFT office in the Bronx can be viewed here.)
The purchase comes after nurses have been left to crowdsource their own personal protective equipment, and new reports have surfaced from a whistleblower that indicate White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and a team of inexperience amateurs botched the administration’s effort to pursue leads on supplies. Pleas for the federal government to step in continue to go mostly unheard, despite a promising bill from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the COVID-19 Emergency Manufacturing Act, which calls for the public manufacturing of personal protective equipment, prescription drugs and other medical supplies necessary to combat the pandemic.
An AFT member, Donna Phillips from Alaska, started an online petition that garnered more than 150,000 signatures, demanding the Trump administration take a series of steps to provide personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers immediately, and the union’s members across the country—from Vermont, to Ohio, to Connecticut, to Montana and more—have spoken out extensively on the need for equipment. The union also ran a six-figure ad buy in major media markets nationwide, featuring healthcare professionals calling out the president for accusing them of stealing protective equipment and supplies.
“Union dues are now being devoted to protect the protectors and save lives, because the federal government won’t do its job,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We have filed complaints, we have signed petitions, we have demonstrated, and we have run ads—and now, we’ve become supply clerks, negotiating equipment purchases around the world—because our members are getting sick, our colleagues and loved ones are dying, and our government has failed to protect them. If they won’t do it, we will try to get them what they need.
“This country’s healthcare providers are marching headfirst into the breach of an unprecedented and terrifying global health crisis. Every day, they are willingly caring for patients and heroically trying to stop the spread of this virus without the basic masks, gowns and face shields they need to protect themselves. It is a life-and-death struggle, and we must treat it like one. Without personal protective equipment, infections in healthcare providers will continue to rise; and without those providers, our entire population lacks the professional care, comfort and expertise necessary to fight this virus.
“The federal government did not create this pandemic, but its chaotic and misleading response is putting additional lives at risk, forcing everyone from schoolchildren to unions to Hollywood celebrities to step in and help source PPE that should have been in reserve from the start. A national emergency requires a national response, yet the Trump administration suggests putting meatpackers, transit workers, first responders and other workers at extreme risk. The administration remains either unwilling or unable to provide the leadership needed to nationalize our supply chain, ramp up production, and prevent states from competing for lifesaving equipment and gear. This administration never misses a moment to congratulate itself, but its actions speak louder than its words, as evidenced by its repeated refusal to use the full power of the federal government to increase production of lifesaving supplies and testing.
“For weeks, I have listened to the rallying cries, late-night phone calls and pleas from nurses, techs and other providers—people like Sherri Dayton, a home care and emergency department nurse from Connecticut, who watched as a patient’s wife FaceTimed while her husband was being taken off life support, playing their wedding song, or my sister, an intensive care physician, fighting this battle every day—who are pleading desperately, “Get this equipment to us and get it to us now.” And today, our union and its members are coming together to do our part to help them in their herculean effort to provide care to those who need it most.”
Former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, chairman and CEO of the U.S. Heartland China Association, which helped facilitate the distribution, said, “We want to thank the American Federation of Teachers and Randi Weingarten, AFT president, for their leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Their proactive leadership is saving lives and protecting the working men and women of their federation, as well as countless other Americans. We are honored to support the AFT’s efforts by providing the LFT and the UFCW much-needed masks donated by Wanxiang America. Working together, we can save more lives.”
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, whose organization partnered in the purchase, said: “The heroism of healthcare professionals, here in New York at the epicenter of this crisis and across the nation, is as inspiring as it is remarkable. We know we’re not out of the woods yet, and as a union we’re here to do our part to support the hardworking people selflessly sacrificing to keep us healthy and safe.”
Registered nurse Rick Lucas, who received some of the equipment, said, “It’s terrifying to risk your life every day just by going to work. It brings a lot of things into perspective. I’m not going to give up on protecting my patients, even though it’s clear the federal government has basically given up on protecting us. More than 80 of my co-workers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have tested positive for the coronavirus, and many of those positive tests were due to occupational exposure because of lack of PPE. This is inexcusable. I’m eternally grateful to know that when my health and safety are on the line, it’s my union that steps up and actually gets something done to help.”