Their Lives Are On The Line. Yet, ‘Public Service Workers Still Answer the Call’

Updating wills before heading into work. Extending the lives of single-use masks. Self-isolating from their own families. These are just some of the shameful realities and conditions health care workers on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic are facing each day.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders and three AFSCME International vice presidents on Tuesday delivered a frank assessment of the dire conditions facing front-line health care workers on the ground. They outlined the growing challenges and threats facing these workers and offered short- and long-term solutions to help them and soften the economic fallout on communities.

They called on Congress and the Trump administration to ramp up efforts to send personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies to aid public service workers who are rising to meet the challenge without the resources they need to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress has approved more than $2 trillion in relief with AFSCME’s backing. But that is just a down payment. Saunders outlined the need for a fourth stimulus package that would include provisions such as:

  • An expansion of aid to state and local governments to preserve and expand critical public services;
  • Fiscal relief and protections for workers, including directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop an infectious disease standard; and
  • Permanent paid sick leave for all workers.

AFSCME will continue to call on President Donald Trump to immediately activate the full force of the Defense Production Act to expedite the delivery of PPE to the front lines.

“While the rest of America hunkers down, these everyday heroes leave the safety of their homes and head to the front lines,” Saunders told reporters. “Public service workers still answer the call. For all they do – for all their heroic, life-saving efforts – they deserve support and respect. … They deserve gloves and gowns, masks and swabs, respirators and ventilators so they can get the job done safely right now.”

AFSCME members are among the growing chorus of health care workers across the country who say they are battling the novel coronavirus with far too little armor.

“Workers are risking their lives and the lives of their families to treat a virus we don’t even fully understand or know the long-term effects of because that’s what our members do in public service – put patients and clients above themselves,” said Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of Oregon AFSCME. “We need a response that will address the full scope of this crisis – not just now, but in the future, because this will intensify.”

Henry Garrido, executive director of AFSCME District Council 37 (New York), spoke of PPE shortages even in the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic.

"We desperately need ventilators – in the public hospital system in particular,” Garrido said. “Respiratory therapists and people we represent are not only sharing ventilators among two or three patients, but are themselves in need as they get sick. We’re setting up a morgue on an island in New York because we don’t have enough space” in the city’s public hospitals.

For weeks, hospitals across the country have faced a critical shortage of masks, gowns, gloves, and other PPE that prevent workers from getting sick.

“We must be concerned about the nurses and health professionals who have health conditions of their own that put them at greater risk when interacting with community and in the workplace,” said Denise Duncan, a registered nurse and president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP). “We don’t have an unlimited supply of health care professionals. Social distancing is vital, and the availability of PPE is vital.”