Members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union of its kind with approximately 265,000 workers nationwide, gathered at the Salem Veterans Affair Medical Center on April 22 to make their demands known to VA management.
According to Ben Speight, the National VA Council Crisis Campaign Director, the AFGE has eleven such demands: PPE, telework to minimize contact, communication, training, proper planning, weather and safety leave, hazard pay, immunocompromised members, right to bargain, testing and mental health care.
Frustration over being forced to choose between doing their jobs and risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus has reached a tipping point for some. A protestor named John, who declined to give his last name, said, “I feel underappreciated as a VA employee. It’s hard to constantly give maximize effort when the people above you show individuals like myself little to no respect.”
N95 respirator masks, which filter out 95 percent of particles, including those too small to be caught by the additional masks, have been in short supply. Speight believes that is just one reason why the VA is in a deep crisis.
“Shortages of PPE remain in facilities nationwide, including the VA in Salem. Numerous workers are coming out to share their stories with the public. I would encourage the community to tell members of Congress to support legislation that requires the VA to provide testing and PPE among other imperative things,” he said.
More than 9,000 healthcare workers in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus. Tony Williams, an AFGE Administrative Assistant, believes that many of those cases could have been prevented had sufficient safeguards been in place.
“Safety for VA workers and veterans is of national importance. Since 1982, the VA has been tasked as the backup hospital system to all civilians in the case of a national emergency,” he said. “As more and more VA facilities are used by veterans and civilians alike, our national safety depends on VA workers having the proper equipment, safe staffing levels and fair workplace conditions.”
Some nurses say they are prepared to refuse assignments if they feel they are put in harm’s way. If caregivers start falling from the virus in large numbers, union members point out that there won’t be enough healthcare workers to combat COVID-19.
“We came to the Salem VA to demand what is right for staff who have been exposed. It is time that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie provides us the resources we need to serve veterans and the general public-facing the COVID-19 pandemic,” said James Martin, a member of AFGE Local 1739.