News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

April 03, 2020

California healthcare workers fight for the public good during the pandemic

By Nick French

Alameda County’s public hospitals and clinics were stretched to the breaking point before the Covid-19 outbreak. Already forced by underfunding and mismanagement to treat patients under unsafe conditions, healthcare workers at Oakland’s Highland Hospital are likely to be totally overwhelmed by Covid-19 admissions. Their struggle is shared by healthcare workers across the country, from neighboring Kaiser Permanente Medical Center to Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in New York City.

The dangerous situation of healthcare workers, who lack disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer and are forced to reuse single-use masks, puts them at greater risk of infection by the coronavirus. It also makes it more likely that healthcare workers will spread the virus to previously uninfected patients. That means both workers and patients who enter a hospital virus-free are more likely to leave it infected, creating more opportunities for Covid-19 to spread in the community.

Hazardous conditions for healthcare workers are also hazardous for the public. These conditions threaten to make an already deadly pandemic even worse.

Thankfully, California healthcare workers are stepping up to fight for policies that will dramatically lessen the crisis for all of society.

Their demands speak to the inseparable needs of both frontline healthcare workers and the public in the Covid-19 crisis. We need enough well-trained, adequately equipped healthcare workers to treat the disease and prevent its spread. We also need to do everything possible to slow transmission of the virus among the broader public — for example, by financially enabling people to stay home, and to receive medical treatment if they lose their job. After all, the faster the virus spreads, the more hospitals will be over-burdened, and the more likely it is that healthcare workers and their patients will be put at risk.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, the union representing Alameda County’s public healthcare workers, is demanding the resources they desperately need to handle the pandemic. They are calling on their employer, Alameda Health System (AHS), to address the crisis by increasing staffing, providing paid leave to workers who have to stay home, and make life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) available to healthcare workers.

On March 26, SEIU 1021 workers at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, joined by supportive community members, publicized their demands at a press conference in front of the emergency room. Later that day AHS CEO Delvecchio Finley ceded to workers’ demand for paid leave. But he failed to address their urgent needs for PPE and increased staffing.

Now, healthcare workers across the state are demanding that California Gov. Gavin Newsom act to slow the spread of Covid-19 and equip hospitals and clinics to confront the pandemic. On March 30, AHS workers joined a statewide coalition of healthcare and social services workers (including members from SEIU Locals 1021, 21, 521, 121 RN, 2015, and 1000) in releasing a petition which calls on the governor to take immediate and dramatic action to prevent further unnecessary loss of life.

The petition’s demands (among others) include:

  • Rapidly increasing medically necessary supplies by requisitioning existing private stockpiles of PPE and directing factories to produce equipment.
  • Reducing virus transmission and death by ensuring that hospitals and essential workplaces adhere to strict safety standards.
  • Banning evictions, suspending rent payments, and guaranteeing paid leave statewide for the duration of the crisis.
  • Establishing universal health coverage for all Californians, free at the point of service and not linked to employment or limited by ability to pay.

There’s an old saying popular in the American labor movement: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Covid-19 shows how true that is. The only way to confront the pandemic is to rapidly transform our healthcare system — and our society — so that everybody has the resources they need to navigate this crisis safely. That’s why healthcare workers are on the front lines of the struggle for the public’s health and well-being.