Health care workers know that now more than ever they need union protection, as they battle for safe working conditions and resources on the frontlines of a pandemic. HPAE is New Jersey’s largest union of nurses and health professionals, including 14,000 workers in hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies, blood banks, and university research facilities throughout New Jersey and the Philadelphia area. We continue to treat patients who have contracted SARS-CoV-2 virus, with our country reporting record high cases and New Jersey confirming new cases that are three and four times what they were in the summer.
Every hospital, nursing home and long-term care facility were overwhelmed during the worst days of the spring surge. Every hospital bed was occupied, with makeshift tents installed outside of emergency rooms to handle the influx of cases and the military was called in to address staffing shortages as the numbers of patients far exceeded the numbers of available nurses and other health care workers.
Staffing became even more of an issue as these same health care workers themselves were exposed to the virus and fell ill.
In the spring surge, health care workers were constantly adjusting to changes in health and safety policies, changes in patient care and COVID treatments and working in areas and units where they may have had little or no experience. To make matters more difficult, they were the sole support for large numbers of sick and suffering people as visitation in hospitals stopped. Health care workers experienced tremendous trauma as they held the hands of the deathly ill, connecting dying patients with their loved ones and then going home to grieve over the tragic loss of life they had witnessed that day.
It became evident early on that our health care facilities were not following a standardized pandemic plan, simply because there was no plan to be implemented. Employers rationed personal protective equipment (PPE), leaving our members unprotected and exposed to the coronavirus. And there was little contact tracing, so workers were not consistently informed of their exposure and often had to discover this information on their own and the ever-changing rules left staff navigating their way through this battle not knowing if they themselves would fall victim to this deadly virus.
As a union, we responded to the pleas for help from our members, triaging problems across the state, while tracking and surveying our members’ experiences on the ground. After evaluating the stories and data collected, HPAE released “Exposed & at Risk,” a white paper available on the homepage of the HPAE website. The paper documents the experiences of front-line caregivers in the first surge of COVID-19.
No longer could our union members sit by and bear witness to mistakes happening on the ground as they resulted in harm to our health care workers. We understood, of course, that if health care workers are not safe, then neither are their patients. Thus, union members began to stand together to demand their voices be heard and the safety of those on the frontlines take greater precedence.
As our priorities became clear, HPAE began focus on the health and safety of our front-line caregivers. Our collective voices began to push for testing and contact tracing of employees, proper quarantine for exposed workers, cohorting of COVID positive patients and staff, training of staff and adequate PPE and fit testing in order to ensure health care worker risks of exposure were limited and significantly reduced.
HPAE members headed into negotiations to demand a seat at the table in pandemic planning and ratified new contracts that provided union leaders with the right to be informed and to improve conditions for workers on the front lines.
HPAE members reported unsafe conditions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that that have thus far resulted in multiple employer citations, with many more citations to expected come by the end of 2020. HPAE conducted training and webinars to inform and prepare workers on the frontlines to know their rights and demand they be provided adequate PPE that safely fits. HPAE also held four town halls with members, bringing in experts and helping to dispel the confusion of the frontline caregiver.
Union leaders held meetings with health care administrators to address evolving concerns and critical safety needs. HPAE released a report titled “Exposed & At-Risk” to highlight the growing needs of health care workers and call for legislative and regulatory solutions to protect workers and their patients’ safety. More than anything, HPAE became a leading voice for worker and patient safety in New Jersey as we fought to control the spread of the virus and save thousands of lives across our state.
Our efforts resulted in a law that would allow an automatic presumption that essential workers who contracted COVID, have been exposed and infected in the workplace. Additionally, legislation is moving that will make known the number of health care workers who have contracted COVID and the number of workers who have lost their lives, while also providing data to the state Department of Health on the number of workers exposed to the virus. This data will help to inform lawmakers and regulators, who must work to ensure our state is better prepared for any future infectious disease outbreaks.
Since the moment in the early 1970s when nurses fought for a voice at Englewood Hospital, and throughout the last 46 years, HPAE has been a leading advocate for health care workers. HPAE will continue to demand to protect our members, essential workers on the frontlines of our health care system and our patients who rely on our health care facilities to prioritize quality care to improve their health outcomes.
HPAE, as a union of health care workers, is uniquely positioned to shine a light on the long-standing disparities in New Jersey that affect health outcomes – unequal access to health care and insurance, implicit bias in health care settings – and set a course of correction through education, training and legislation.
Currently, 1,100 service workers at Hackensack Meridian Health Jersey Shore University Medical Center have voted on whether to join HPAE. As we wait on a final vote count, HPAE is committed to bringing the protections a union has to offer to health care workers across New Jersey.
Debbie White is a registered nurse and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the largest union of registered nurses and health care professionals in New Jersey. HPAE is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.