Doing their job should not have cost them their lives - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Doing their job should not have cost them their lives OpEd

Debbie White, RN, President, HPAE

March 26, 2021

March 26 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Alfredo Pabatao to COVID-19. Alfredo was the first member of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) to be lost to the pandemic and sadly, his wife, Susana, a nursing assistant in a long-term care facility, would also die of the disease a few days later.

Healthcare workers have endured physical and emotional trauma, during the past year and yet the pandemic continues to take a toll.

Alfredo, a member of HPAE Local 5030, was a transporter at Palisades Medical Center. But there were also other losses to come:

  • Maria Luisa Lopez, of HPAE Local 5185, a registered nurse at Bayonne Medical Center, died on March 31, 2020;
  • Susan Cicala, of HPAE Local 5089, a registered nurse at Northern State Prison as part of Rutgers’ University Correctional Health Care, died on April 4, 2020;
  • Nagi Abraham, of HPAE Local 5094, a lab tech at University Hospital would die on April 12, 2020;
  • George Sisnero, of HPAE Local 5089, would die late the next month, on May 24, 2020, a registered nurse at University Hospital, and
  • Nancy Martell, a beloved vice president at Local 5030, and a patient care technician at Palisades Medical Center, died after a long battle with this disease.

The signs proclaiming healthcare workers as “heroes” on windowsills and lawns are fading into memory now. Those signs were heartwarming at the time, yet too many of these “heroes” reported feeling disposable. Many healthcare workers were unprotected and felt exposed and at risk of contracting the virus. We filed complaints with Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and the many citations issued in response were a testament to the fact that employers indeed failed to protect our workers.

OSHA found violations in respiratory protections, PPE and training. Employers seeking a quick fix discarded fundamental workplace safety regulations established years ago.

Employers stopped fit-testing resulting in ill-fitting respiratory protection. They failed to issue the required PPE and, at times, they instructed workers to remove PPE to avoid “scaring patients.” We have heard of nurses wearing garbage bags because gowns and masks were rationed and locked away for later use. The anxiety alone that this created must have been staggering.

We have yet to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on our healthcare workers — how many contracted the disease, had long-term effects and how many died. The sad fact is that no one mandated that employers track and record healthcare exposure and disease. Employers and their associations fought vehemently against a mandate to track cases of COVID-19 among workers, at times, it seemed, with full cooperation from legislators. For this reason, the law to track COVID-19 among healthcare workers took 10 months to pass and critical data has now been lost.

Our union continues to advocate for laws and regulations to protect healthcare workers. We have fought for protective equipment so all healthcare workers could continue to do their work safely without infecting themselves and their patients. Even as workers continue to contract COVID-19 in the workplace, employers, rather than remedy the problem and pay the fine, have chosen to pay attorneys to challenge OSHA citations and penalties for wrongdoing.

As a union, we have learned valuable lessons. Moving forward, we need a plan to protect healthcare workers on the front lines of disease outbreaks. Legislators, employers and the community depended on healthcare workers to be there for them during this pandemic and we do so because we are dedicated to our life’s work. But it should not cost us our health and our lives. The state and our employers also have a responsibility to healthcare workers to establish deliberate standardized measures, a pandemic plan if you will, focused on workplace safety.

Because we know that a safe work environment means that patients, too, will be safe.

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