Healthcare workers want better working conditions, more PPE

    Hand sanitizer sits on a table during a news conference with healthcare workers at the National Nurses United offices in Oakland, California. The National Nurses United held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control is not doing enough to help protect and test healthcare workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
    Hand sanitizer sits on a table during a news conference with healthcare workers at the National Nurses United offices in Oakland, California. The National Nurses United held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control is not doing enough to help protect and test healthcare workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

    While the state Legislature has passed one COVID-19 relief bill and Gov. Tony Evers signed it Wednesday, health care workers and state Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) are calling for follow-up legislation that would do more for some of the people on the front lines of the illness.

    State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa)

    Earlier this week, Vining circulated a letter to colleagues in the Legislature outlining broad goals for a “Healthcare heroes” bill: ensuring more personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, as well as guaranteeing them fully paid sick leave, hazard pay and health coverage.

    On a Zoom press conference with reporters sponsored by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Vining said precisely how those goals would be achieved was open to discussion.

    The most likely vehicle, she suggested, may be funding from the $1.9 billion Wisconsin is expecting from the $2 trillion CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.

    “The Republicans have made it very clear they’re not going to spend state money” on relief programs, Vining said, referring to Assembly and Senate GOP leaders and the bipartisan negotiations that led to the state’s COVID relief legislation.

    The online news conference took place as the state Senate was meeting to pass the legislation.

    Participating in the conference was a group of healthcare workers from various hospital and nursing home occupations. All of them referred to common themes, particularly shortages of PPE no matter where they worked.

    “Our jobs are essential,” said certified nursing assistant (CNA) Demetrica Shipp. “Without enough protective equipment, we risk our health and safety and the health and safety of our families every day.”

    Joseph “Chip” Stankovsky, works in the food and nutrition department of a Milwaukee hospital and replenishes food stocks throughout the facility. One protective mask has to last him for the whole day or longer.

    Stankovsky recalled seeing his father’s pay stub in 1976 when he was 12 years old. His father made $12 an hour.

    “I said ‘we’re rich!’ Now, 44 years later, I make the same amount,” he said.

    “Twelve dollars an hour was a living wage back in 1976,” Stankovsky continued. But in 2020, “$12 wasn’t enough before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s definitely not enough now.”

    Randi Payne, a nursing home CNA in Sheboygan, said the PPE shortage has meant she had to wear the same mask for a week. Her nursing home has, so far, not had a COVID-19 case, she said, but one nearby had an outbreak, and she worries about what will happen where she works. “Nursing homes are like petri dishes for viruses,” Payne said.

    Many in the healthcare field who miss work for illness lack needed benefits. “If I get sick I don’t have the paid sick time to take care of myself and take care of my family,” said Lisa Gordon, a CNA at a nursing home in Monroe.

    Others may get some coverage, but it’s limited. “Right now, if we get sick, we have to take time out from our PTO [paid time off],” said Justin Byers, a La Crosse paramedic. “But when we have PTO, we don’t get full pay. Our families rely on us. We provide a critical service. We need and we deserve full paid sick leave.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.