OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid

Nick Vachon July 16, 2020

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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