Milwaukee-area healthcare worker during pandemic: 'I don’t feel essential, I feel disposable'

Nurse wearing blue uniform
Posted at 9:18 PM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-02 00:07:13-04

MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin nurses and health workers union says hospital employees are risking their health and safety to take care of patients during this pandemic.

"I had one member talk to me yesterday and said, 'I don't feel essential, I feel disposable,'" said Jamie Lucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals.

The union represents a variety of workers at four Milwaukee area health systems. Those include Milwaukee VA Hospital, Milwaukee County Behavioral Health, Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories, and Ascension St. Francis. Lucas said all four of them have workers who have complained they are not able to readily get personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks while they work.


"We take all staff concerns seriously, said Michael Lappen, Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division administrator. "We've increased our management communications to ensure any challenges are addressed, and everyone is receiving the most up-to-date information during this fluid time. The Mental Health Complex has had and continues to have sufficient PPE supplies necessary to follow recommended COVID-19 staff and patient safety protocols."

"The Milwaukee VA is following all CDC protocols for the safety and well-being of our Veterans and staff," said Gary Kunich, Milwaukee VA spokesperson.

The union said housekeepers at Ascension St. Francis tell them they are not getting enough PPEs when they clean room after a COVID-19 positive patient is discharged.

"Housekeepers have been forced to clean a COVID-19 patient's room without protective equipment because it was only saved for nurses and doctors. But everyone needs it," said Lucas.

In response to that, Ascension St. Francis released this statement:

"The health and safety of our patients, associates, and visitors is a top priority at Ascension Wisconsin. Infection preventionists at our sites of care are working closely with the CDC and local public health authorities to detect, protect, and respond in accordance with current recommendations and guidelines. We have implemented the recommended infection prevention precautions and protocols within our sites of care. At this time, Ascension Wisconsin is not critically low on supplies, but we are implementing aggressive conservation methods to ensure we're prepared for an anticipated increase in patient volumes. Ascension Wisconsin is following the updated CDC guidelines regarding suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Our caregivers and associates, including our valued TouchPoint team members who provide environmental services at our facilities, have received training in infection prevention practices and protocols. Our infection prevention specialists are staying updated on any measures we may need to take as additional guidance becomes available.

Ascension Wisconsin, through established incident command centers, is ensuring emergency preparedness and coordination between sites of care; best practices to increase workplace hygiene and environmental controls; and timely changes to workflow and screening tools based upon updated CDC guidance. In addition, Ascension Wisconsin is following CDC and Wisconsin Department of Health services guidance regarding appropriate COVID-19 screening and testing protocols.

Ascension Wisconsin is following CDC and Wisconsin Department of Health services guidance regarding appropriate COVID-19 screening and testing protocols."

Lucas said employees do not just need protection on the job. They are also asking to get sick pay if they contact the coronavirus at work. Some hospitals offer full compensation for those situations.

Others, like the Milwaukee VA, said it may or may not be able to pay for time off because of federal guidelines.

"There are specific federal rules that govern the use of leave," said Kunich. "If a public health official or our own employee health feels an employee has been exposed but is asymptomatic, and if they aren't able to telework, we gather as much information as possible and make a decision if they may be able to get paid, authorized absence for up to 14 days. If an employee tests positive, they will also be sent home, but must use paid sick leave."

"We are asking for paid time off for a documented exposure if you have quarantine for suspected or documented exposure to a positive patient," said Lucas. "Some people might not have a lot of time off. Some people feel like they can't stay home because of the demand of the moment."

The Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories released this statement on how their employees are compensated if they get sick during this period.

Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories, CEO, Steve Serota:

"As COVID-19 impacts our community, WDL's industry-leading team of pathologists and laboratorians continue to work to expand access to the critical diagnostic tools needed to address this pandemic. The health and safety of our staff, who stand on the front line of protecting our communities through the provision of critical testing, is of paramount importance to WDL and for the health of our community.

In the interest of the safety of our pathologists, laboratorians, and non-clinical staff, WDL has implemented a number of efforts to support our staff and continue to work hard to help our staff manage an increase in family obligations and concerns about their personal health and that of their loved ones. With this in mind, we continue to work with our union partners to advance these efforts. Here is a high-level recap of efforts related to our staff by WDL thus far, including the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals:

· Provided an 80-hour paid grace period for WDL staff;
· Advanced PTO leave for impacted staff;
· Negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with substantial pay increases;
· Committed to providing pay for medically impacted staff by COVID-19;
· Developed COVID-19 specific policies covering attendance, illness, quarantine, and more. The overarching goal is to have our healthy staff members present to meet our community's needs.
· We have again increased the availability and visibility of our Employee Assistance program to address the emotional and mental health needs of our staff.

We have a long-standing and successful relationship with the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals team members and look forward to partnering with them to collaborate to help manage the health care needs of our patients, staff, and community during these challenging times."

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