Demanding hazard pay, personal protective equipment and other resources needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, some 20 local caregivers and union members gathered at St. Patrick Hospital on Monday to bring attention to the need for a coronavirus relief bill from Congress.
“There is a bill that is sitting in the House. The Senate needs to act,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, the statewide labor union, at the press conference.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, similar to the CARES Act, which is meant to help American families weather the pandemic. It included hazard pay for essential workers, money for PPE and testing, funding for state and local governments and school districts, extra unemployment benefits that went away in July, and it reinstated another round of $1,200 stimulus checks that middle- and low-income adults received this summer, among other resources. The bill failed to advance in the Senate with the Republican majority in opposition.
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Senate leaders are currently discussing a bipartisan coronavirus relief package. House Democrats passed their own revised version of a coronavirus aid package last week, "in a largely symbolic expression of frustration with protracted talks on a bipartisan compromise," according to the Associated Press.
Members of SEIU 775, which represents more than 45,000 long-term care workers in Montana and Washington, and others at the press conference, said passing a coronavirus relief package is necessary to aid an already stressed health care system as cases in Montana are on the rise. Specifically, the group said hazard pay would help quell staff shortages and bring much-needed morale to front line workers in the health care industry.
“With the current surge of cases in Montana and flu season just beginning, we need to anticipate greater staffing shortages in our health care facilities and other essential workforces,” said Loni Velin-Conley, a nurse working as a public health COVID-19 case investigator and a democrat candidate for Montana’s House District 96.
Kristi Stacy, a local nursing home caregiver and union member, said her facility has struggled with turnover since the pandemic started, which has only been exacerbated as caregivers themselves are forced to isolate and quarantine with cases growing and close contacts being identified.
“We’re already understaffed as it is, and now we’ve got more coworkers that are out because they’ve been tested for COVID,” Stacy said.
She also pointed to the likelihood of coming PPE shortages, similar to what health care facilities experienced in mass at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We were asked to reuse our N95 masks. We also struggled in not getting medical grade gloves, and we were asked to use deli grade gloves. During a pandemic, this is unacceptable,” Stacy said. “Montana has seen spikes in the last month and we don’t want to go through a PPE shortage again.”
The group specifically called out Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for not supporting the original HEROES Act, with around seven of them visiting Daines’ office downtown after the press conference at the hospital to express their grievances. No one answered the door.
In an emailed statement, Daines' office said he's supported hazard pay since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Senator Daines is pushing several bipartisan priorities in the Senate's next COVID-19 package. What's important is putting something forward that can get signed into law. As we've seen for months now, that will not happen with the HEROES act," said Miles Novak, Daines' spokesperson. "Negotiations on a bipartisan compromise are underway, and Senator Daines is fighting for Montana priorities including targeted relief for Montana families, workers and small businesses in the package."
Velin-Conley said while the extra incentive of hazard pay does help facilities maintain adequate staffing, it’s also simply what is deserved for the risk caregivers are taking by showing up to work every day.
“When we’re not in a pandemic, it’s hard to get enough nursing staff. We’re at a shortage in our state and in our nation, and we’re going to continue that way, so having hazard pay will help to not only incentivize, but show appreciation for the workforce as they are on the frontlines and leaving their family to come do the job that needs to be done to take care of others.” she said.