After two American nurses contracted the Ebola virus while caring for an infected patient in early October, the 185,000-member National Nurses United (NNU) union decided to take a stand. At a rally in Oakland, California, NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro said in a speech, “We’ve been lied to in terms of the preparation in the hospitals. We’ve been essentially ignored by the White House and the CDC, and they’ve been giving the hospitals far too much credit in assuming that [the hospitals] would actually be taking their advice.”
Since their initial rally in Oakland, NNU has been staging protests across the country. In response to a non-binding CDC report in mid-October issuing new protocols for hospitals to deal with Ebola, NNU workers gathered in a “national week of action” from October 20 through 24. The NNU protesters urged Congress, OSHA, and the Obama administration to mandate that all American hospitals must adopt the highest standards of occupational safety promulgated by the CDC to protect healthcare workers and patients alike. NNU has also sent an open letter and petition to President Obama asking for “the President to invoke his executive authority to mandate uniform, national standards and protocols that all hospitals must follow to safely protect patients, registered nurses, other front-line healthcare workers, and the public.” Other national unions, such as the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Government Employees have called on the Obama Administration to protect all employees, especially healthcare and public health workers, from Ebola through implementation of protective measures.
Outside of healthcare protocol, labor unions representing other “at risk employees” have been weighing in on Ebola preparedness. New York City, in conjunction with the Municipal Labor Committee that represents over 300,000 public employees, recently offered Ebola training for employees including firefighters, police officers, nurses, and public sanitation workers. However, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health believes that training alone is not enough — through a published letter, the group urged New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to issue an executive order mandating the use of Centers for Disease Control guidelines and training for Ebola response at all New York City hospitals. Further, employees at Newark Airport are receiving training and advice on how to question newly-arrived international passengers. Despite training, Ebola has served as a lynchpin for airport employees in their battle to unionize — for example, 200 workers of facilities company Air Serv staged a one day walkout at LaGuardia Airport on October 9 over health and safety concerns, low wages, and their right to join a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
A survey conducted by NNU in early October shows that many nurses believe American hospitals may not be adequately prepared to handle a widespread Ebola epidemic. Though some nurses feel prepared for Ebola, out of approximately 2,200 nurses who responded to NNU’s questionnaire, 85 percent reported that their hospitals had not provided satisfactory education on Ebola. 76 percent of respondents said their institution had no formal policy for how to admit and handle patients potentially infected with the virus, and one-third claimed their hospitals didn’t have enough safety supplies and personal protection equipment, including eye protection and fluid resistant gowns. In response to the survey, NNU called for all United States hospitals to immediately implement full emergency preparedness plans for Ebola outbreaks. NNU also wants hazmat suits meeting certain CDC specifications, a minimum of two registered nurses to care for each Ebola patient with no other patient assignments, and on-going training.
Until the government complies with union demands, labor unions will use all of the tools they have available to advocate for better protections. NNU has called a two day strike, scheduled for November 11 and 12, against Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics in the San Francisco area. An expected 18,000 employees will walk out of 66 Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics to demand tougher Ebola safety precautions in the wake of the California Nurses Association’s upcoming contract negotiations with the hospital system. The NNU actions mirror labor actions abroad, where nurses at Liberia’s largest hospital in the Liberian capital of Monrovia went on strike demanding better pay and equipment to protect them against contracting Ebola. The demands from unions in Liberia sound incredibly similar to American unions’ grievances — Liberian Health Workers Association union secretary general, George Williams said “[w]hat we take home is insufficient for the kind of risk and the kind of jobs we do. That we have told our government from time immemorial. Nobody seems to listen to this.”