OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid

Nick Vachon

Workers have been threatened by unjust firings, lack of protective equipment and negligent management. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Dur­ing the dark­est days of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, with thou­sands dying every day, Amer­i­ca relied on a select few essen­tial work­ers to keep soci­ety run­ning, like postal work­ers, gro­cery work­ers and meat pack­ers — all indus­tries that have seen, togeth­er, hun­dreds of Covid-relat­ed deaths among work­ers. Chief among them are nurs­es, on the front lines of the pan­dem­ic, who have put their lives on the line to intu­bate dis­ease vic­tims and pro­vide life­sav­ing med­ical care. Since the pan­dem­ic began, over 500 health­care work­ers in the Unit­ed States have died from the virus.

But these work­ers who we rely on so deeply — dubbed war­riors” by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and heroes” by Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell — con­tin­ue to work under hos­tile man­age­ment and in dan­ger­ous work­places that make the dis­ease even more con­ta­gious and deadly.

That’s accord­ing to a dataset and inter­ac­tive map recent­ly released by Strike­wave, a newslet­ter of orig­i­nal report­ing and analy­sis for the U.S. labor move­ment. The data show at least 21,510 Covid-relat­ed Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) com­plaints since the start of the pan­dem­ic. It’s unknown exact­ly how many more com­plaints than usu­al have been filed, as OSHA com­plaints are rel­a­tive­ly con­fi­den­tial. But it’s clear that they are surg­ing.

Com­mon in the com­plaints are alle­ga­tions of man­age­r­i­al neglect, care­less­ness and abuse.

And while we may like to think that bad man­age­ment is the exclu­sive ter­ri­to­ry of greedy cor­po­ra­tions, the com­plaints show how health­care work­ers, some of them work­ing for nom­i­nal­ly non-prof­it hos­pi­tals, have been failed by their employ­ers even as they per­form dan­ger­ous and essen­tial work.

At Ascen­sion Genesys Hos­pi­tal in Grand Blanc, Michi­gan, a sub­urb of Flint, sev­er­al OSHA com­plaints filed at the end of March alleged wide­spread short­ages of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and threats from management.

Car­olyn Clemons, a reg­is­tered nurse work­ing in Genesys Hospital’s Covid-19 inten­sive care unit and mem­ber of Team­sters Local 332, said that in late March, when cas­es were sky­rock­et­ing, nurs­es who wore masks out­side of patient rooms were threat­ened with dis­ci­pli­nary actions and fir­ings. In hall­ways and offices, where nurs­es worked close­ly togeth­er, man­agers enforced a no-mask pol­i­cy into April, accord­ing to Clemons. Iron­i­cal­ly, some of the man­agers who threat­ened mask-wear­ing employ­ees were the same who lat­er test­ed pos­i­tive for the coronavirus.

There was not good com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” Clemons said. We felt a lack of respect for what we do.”

At the height of the pan­dem­ic, man­age­ment kept stock­piles of PPE under lock and key in their offices while telling nurs­es to wear garbage bags instead, accord­ing to Kim­ber­ly Cox, a reg­is­tered nurse and the Chief Stew­ard of Team­sters 332. Even now, she says, much of that equip­ment remains unused.

Nurs­es at the hos­pi­tal have test­ed pos­i­tive. Accord­ing to Cox, how­ev­er, Genesys has so far refused to either pro­vide on-site tests for nurs­es or inform employ­ees of the num­ber of pos­i­tive or assumed cas­es among staff, despite repeat­ed union requests. Nurs­es, some of them exhaust­ed by per­sis­tent coughs and high fevers, were told to dri­ve to the next hos­pi­tal over.

There are com­plaints from hos­pi­tals across the Ascen­sion health system.

One, filed on April 28 at Ascen­sion St. Fran­cis Hos­pi­tal in Mil­wau­kee, claimed man­age­ment failed to imple­ment social dis­tanc­ing prac­tices prop­er­ly or effec­tive­ly” and that work­ers were not informed when they were exposed to patients and cowork­ers with con­firmed cas­es of Covid-19. At that point there were almost 3,000 Covid-19 cas­es in Mil­wau­kee and more than 150 deaths.

There have been more than 15 such com­plaints against the health sys­tem, includ­ing the ones against Genesys and St. Fran­cis, and there are like­ly more (detailed infor­ma­tion about OSHA com­plaints is only avail­able for closed” cas­es, sug­gest­ing there could be sev­er­al ongo­ing but con­fi­den­tial com­plaints). Addi­tion­al­ly, Team­sters Local 332 has filed more than 100 griev­ances with the hospital.

Ascen­sion, which oper­ates as a non-prof­it out of St. Louis, Mis­souri, cut its CEO a $13.6 mil­lion pay­check in 2017, the last year on record. It also oper­ates a ven­ture cap­i­tal fund, Ascen­sion Ven­tures, which man­ages more than $800 mil­lion, and an invest­ment advi­so­ry fund, Ascen­sion Invest­ment Man­age­ment, which is respon­si­ble for $38.7 bil­lion in cor­po­rate money.

The health sys­tem, which has been fined near­ly $70 mil­lion for var­i­ous reg­u­la­to­ry vio­la­tions over the past decade, received more than $400 mil­lion in fed­er­al fund­ing in May. Genesys itself received more than $20 mil­lion. The fund­ing, like all fed­er­al stim­u­lus so far, comes with no stip­u­la­tions regard­ing employ­ee treatment.

Ascen­sion Health did not respond to a request for comment.

These kinds of com­plaints can be seen across the indus­try. At pub­licly-trad­ed HCA Health­care, one of the wealth­i­est hos­pi­tal chains in the coun­try, com­plaints are, in some cas­es, near­ly iden­ti­cal to those lodged against Ascen­sion: N95 masks locked away by man­age­ment, a total lack of pro­tec­tive equip­ment for house­keep­ers and food ser­vice work­ers, and pro­hi­bi­tions on mask-wear­ing. One com­plaint even alleged that nurs­es were direct­ed to clean their masks with house­hold clean­ing wipes, return them to a bag, and then reuse those masks. In total, work­ers in the HCA net­work lodged at least 35 com­plaints, almost twice as many as Ascen­sion received.

HCA paid its CEO more than $26 mil­lion in 2019 and has made more than $7 bil­lion over the past two years. The chain received $1 bil­lion in fed­er­al pan­dem­ic aid, also with­out stip­u­la­tion. Weeks lat­er, nurs­es at HCA claimed the com­pa­ny threat­ened them with mass fir­ings unless they agreed to wage freezes.

These OSHA com­plaints are just a few of the thou­sands filed, all of which show how so-called essen­tial work­ers have been treat­ed as dis­pos­able. There are more than 3 mil­lion Covid-19 cas­es in the Unit­ed States, but many essen­tial work­ers are already los­ing mea­ger haz­ard pay rais­es. As of April, at least 135,000 health care prac­ti­tion­ers who work in hos­pi­tals had lost their jobs, includ­ing many nurses.

It’s a racial jus­tice issue as well. In New York City, 75% per­cent of front­line work­ers are peo­ple of col­or. And Adia Har­vey Wing­field, a soci­ol­o­gist study­ing Black health­care work­ers, found that those work­ers are more like­ly to work at hos­pi­tals in the same impov­er­ished Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been dev­as­tat­ed by the coronavirus.

Both the pan­dem­ic and the protests sweep­ing the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd car­ry the same les­son: our bru­tal sta­tus quo has long been unten­able for many Amer­i­cans, par­tic­u­lar­ly the poor and non-white.

Nick Vachon is a fel­low at Data for Progress, a writer, and a fourth-year Pol­i­tics stu­dent at Ober­lin College.
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