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Washington health care workers reiterate need for hazard pay, protective gear

"Nurses, techs, respiratory therapists, and service and maintenance workers in health facilities are putting our own lives on the line to respond to this crisis."

SPOKANE, Wash. — Several Washington unions representing nurses and other health care workers are reiterating their demand for hazard pay to support those on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and UFCW 21 issued a joint statement last week that read in part, "We cannot put on a price on unsafe working conditions, and hazard pay does not make up for the lack of proper equipment and support. But it does reflect the lived reality that these workers are putting their health and their lives on the line to ensure that our entire state has a fighting chance to beat this pandemic.”

One week before, the Washington State Nurses Association called on local, state and federal governments to provide “transparent, updated information on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic" and expressed concerns about protective equipment shortfalls.

Representatives for WSNA say some nurses have been asked to reuse surgical masks and face shields, and are even sharing them with others. Others have reported using one mask per 12-hour shift and sharing goggles with other caregivers.

RELATED: Washington nurses want answers about protective equipment shortfalls

The unions issued a statement reiterating their call for hazard pay and appropriate PPE on Friday: 

“Since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Washington state on January 21, essential health care workers—including nurses, techs, radiologists, respiratory therapists, maintenance staff, service workers and others—have stepped forward to serve our community. Our members continue to work, day and night, serving thousands of patients and saving lives even as their own lives are put at risk from a severe shortage of masks and other PPE needed to prevent contagion. We need our hospitals to do more to provide adequate protective gear so all are safe at work.

“Our first priority is PPE—we cannot win this fight if health care workers fall ill, and our members deserve to be protected as they work to help others recover.

“But in view of the PPE shortages that have been going on for weeks on end, health care workers have earned more than our thanks. We are grateful to Senator Patty Murray for her leadership in calling for a Heroes Fund to provide hazard pay for all essential workers. Hospital CEOs have been making millions for years. Hazard pay is a basic thing to provide for frontline caregivers and we are calling on hospitals to step up and pay them and calling on Congress to include hazard pay in coronavirus relief legislations to recognize the contributions of our members with hazard pay for the duration of this crisis."

Clint Wallace, a registered nurse Sacred Heart Medical Center, said nurses and health care workers statewide do not have proper personal protective equipment. 

"We don’t have the personal protective we need and instead are working under crisis CDC guidelines that fly in the face of what we know about proper precautions in caring for infectious patients, like those with COVID-19. There still has been no scientific data that supports these guideline changes," Wallace wrote in part. "In these difficult times, as we continue to deliver the care patients need, we are calling for hazard pay to recognize the risks we are stepping up and facing every day.”

Jennifer Semenza, a spokesperson for Providence Health, told KREM last week that the company started a universal masking policy, where each caregiver who does patient care can receive a surgical mask at the start of their shift if they want one. She added that caregivers who work with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or other contagious situations are provided with appropriate PPE..

RELATED: Sacred Heart receives first shipments of protective gear

Providence issued the following statement to KREM last week in response to the unions calling for hazard pay:

The safety of our caregivers and the communities we serve is of the utmost importance. In fact, Providence St. Joseph Health has been a leader in protecting our caregivers – physically, financially and emotionally – during these unprecedented times.
Providence cares for all patients, no matter the condition they present with. Every day our caregivers care for patients with infectious diseases (such as tuberculosis, AIDS, influenza and others). 

With the advent of COVID-19, the high quality care we provide continues in the same manner. We are not offering hazard pay based on any one particular patient’s diagnosis (or suspected diagnosis).

Even as other health care organizations have begun cutting pay and furloughing employees to help address the financial challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, Providence has established programs that ensure our caregivers are paid for the heroic work they are performing for our communities. Our priority is to ensure that our facilities and caregiver teams are prepared for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases. 

This pandemic has changed the way we provide care and some services are now paused or closed. While some caregivers are being redeployed to support urgent needs in our organization, others cannot be immediately redeployed to another care setting. Therefore, we’ve made the decision to guarantee pay as normal through the end of April.

We are also offering an additional 80 hours of emergency time off through May for caregivers who need additional time off due to COVID-related school closures or illness and have exhausted PTO, EIB or sick/annual leave. We are deeply thankful of our caregivers’ Mission-focus to serve our community. 

MultiCare spokesperson Kevin Maloney said those treating COVID-19 patients wear gowns, respiratory protection such as N95 masks, gloves and protective eye equipment.

"These patients are treated in designated areas to help keep our non-COVID-19 patients safe," he wrote to KREM.

The WSNA issued another statement last week, saying:

"Nurses and other health care workers are using and re-using protective equipment under crisis guidelines that would never be acceptable in normal circumstances. And yet, they are still showing up, without adequate N95s, surgical masks or face shields. They are using and reusing protective equipment in ways that put them at risk far above and beyond the infectious disease care they trained for and provided before the coronavirus pandemic. That is the heroism and dedication we are seeking to recognize through hazard pay for our workers on the frontlines. Hazard pay cannot replace adequate supplies and proper use, but would recognize that our health care workers on the frontlines are facing down a dangerous situation every time they go to work.”

RELATED: Here's where you can donate homemade face masks in Spokane County

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