Troubled by what they call long-standing problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, a group of frontline Denver Health workers announced Tuesday they are seeking to unionize.
A union, the group says, would allow frontline staff to negotiate for more sick leave, more protective equipment and a more even distribution of the hospital’s money. It would also give staff handling sick patients daily an opportunity to weigh in on administrative decisions.
Colorado offers no legal avenue for the union to collectively bargain, but the workers advocating for one say as they grows in numbers they can advocate more effectively for change. In addition, members can lean on the community and politicians for support. The group sent Denver Health executives a letter outlining its intentions Tuesday.
“The COVID-19 crisis has really shined a light on the fact that we don’t have a voice,” one nurse told The Denver Post. “Our concerns were falling on deaf ears.”
She and three other frontline workers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the hospital’s administration.
The group says hospital staff handling sick patients daily have too little protective gear like masks, gloves and smocks. And the gear — often called personal protective equipment or PPE — that is in stock is often the wrong size.
If workers contract the virus, as the group says several have, they have just three days of sick leave, despite medical experts recommending weeks of quarantine time.
And then there’s the question of how cash is spread throughout the financially challenged county hospital, they say. The issue rose to the fore most recently after Denver Health awarded executives six-figure salaries while asking frontline staff to cut their hours.
“We don’t have as many resources. We’re a county hospital,” the nurse said. “This puts into question who is allocating that money and what are the patients losing out on because of it.”
The group declined to say how many people have agreed to join the union. They’re working with Communications Workers of America Local 7799, a chapter of a union that represents tens of thousands of nurses and health care workers across the country.
Denver Health representatives declined to comment Tuesday morning, citing a need to better understand the unionization effort and concerns voiced by staff.
The effort has the support of Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and state Sen. Robert Rodriguez and state Rep. Emily Sirota,, both of Denver.
“These workers are not just the frontline of the fight against covid-19, they’re the social safety net for this city’s health. If we don’t treat them right, then we’re all at risk,” CdeBaca said in a release sent out by the group.
Normal practices ‘out the window’
Generally, the hospital operates under something called shared governance, which is essentially a democratic way of operating the hospital that uses committees of staff members to make informed decisions. But the group said that approach was suspended when the pandemic hit.
“We were told at the beginning of this process that shared governance is out the window and executive staff is handling all of this,” the nurse said.
Many staff members have valuable insight to offer, a second nurse said. Some received grants and specialized training in recent years, like during the Ebola crisis.
“We have been doing years of preparation. Lots of drills, different trainings,” she said. “When the COVID crisis started we were not consulted whatsoever. It’s kind of like what was the point for all of those things then?”
The workers who spoke to The Post said they are seeking to add more and more of Denver Health’s about 7,000 employees to their union, called Denver Health Workers United. They remain hopeful the hospital will embrace their efforts rather than dedicating already short resources to busting the union.
To start, the masks, gloves, smocks and other gear needed for doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants and more to effectively and safely treat patients, is in short supply, the group said. Often, staff is given a single mask for an entire shift.
This puts staff and patients at risk as they move from one patient to the next, possibly wearing contaminated gear, they said.
Often masks are the wrong size, and the type of smocks or gloves issued to staff changes, further complicating the already tricky task of putting on and taking off the gear throughout the day, they said.
“From day one all of us that have been seeing patients have pretty much felt exposed one way or the other,” the first nurse said
In addition, the lack of protective gear means staffers need to optimize visits into each room, effectively meaning less care for each patient, they said. This is particularly difficult because COVID patients require time and emotional support since family are unable to be at their side. A common refrain among surviving family members is that of appreciation for nurses who provided companionship during their dying relatives’ last moments.
“It’s very painful for them to be separated,” a third nurse said. “There’s nothing like the human touch, and there’s a real heightened sense of anxiety in these patients and fear and pain.”
With those concerns and more in mind, the group is reaching out to all types of frontline workers to present a unified front when seeking changes at the hospital.
There are other hospital unions in town, they note, and they could go to work elsewhere, but they want to stay at Denver Health and improve conditions there for workers and patients.
“One of our mottos is, ‘We are Denver Health,’” the second nurse said. “We embrace Denver Health. We make Denver Health what it is. We love working with our co-workers. We love working with our patients. We just want this to be a better place to work, and we can make it a better place to work if we had a seat at the decision-making table.”
This is not the first time staff at Denver Health has attempted to unionize. A similar effort in the early 2000s resulted in a lawsuit after employees claimed the hospital illegally fought the unionization effort as managers created a culture of fear and gave the impression employees would face retaliation if they joined or supported the cause.
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