Ron’s Rundown: Silencing Healthcare Workers Hurts Us All

There is another epidemic growing right alongside the Coronavirus Pandemic.

There is an epidemic of healthcare workers being muzzled by their bosses when they try to speak out about their concerns about unsafe practices at work that expose workers and patients to the coronavirus. 

Let me say that more plainly: bosses are silencing their doctors and nurses. In the middle of a pandemic.

This is happening at hospitals, nursing homes, and in home care. This is most likely happening in your state or community right now.

The New York Times recently reported that in New York City—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US—every private hospital has sent memos to their employees to stop speaking to the media about the coronavirus. Those memos threaten discipline, including termination, if they do.

In Washington state, Emergency Room Doctor Ming Lin was removed from his position, allegedly because he spoke out about his hospital’s lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safety concerns.

In Santa Monica, California ten nurses have been suspended for speaking out and refusing to treat patients without the proper N95 protective equipment.  

Just last week, right here in Colorado, a non-union nursing home worker contacted our union when she was fired for telling her co-workers which residents had COVID-19 because the nurse manager wasn’t and she wanted them to be able to better protect themselves.

And, this makes every single one of us more at risk in the middle of a pandemic.

Let that sink in for a minute. You and your family are more at risk every single time a healthcare worker is silenced when they try to warn their co-workers, their patients, or the public about inadequate coronavirus protections their boss is taking. 

Healthcare workers are called “heroes” on the daily right now and deservedly so. But, when was the last time you saw a hero fired for trying to save the public? When was the last time you saw a hero having to worry about doing what was right or losing their job and no longer being able to pay their mortgage? Heroes shouldn’t be treated this way.

It is time we said what needs to be said. 

This new epidemic of silencing healthcare workers is abhorrent. It is, as we speak, putting more healthcare workers into harm’s way.  It is, as we speak, placing patients in danger. It is, as we speak, making this pandemic worse for all of us. 

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this. 

Healthcare workers can win back their First Amendment rights and be able to speak up without fear. Then, they can better protect themselves, their co-workers, their patients, and the public.

There are two things that can specifically be done.  There is something we can do and there is something healthcare workers can do.

First, the federal or state governments can enact new laws that specifically protect a worker’s right to speak out on a health and safety issue and make it illegal for their boss to discipline or fire them for doing so. It’s that simple. But, it is incredibly important that we do this now. 

Second, healthcare workers need to consider organizing a union where they work and the public should support them when they do so. How will this help?

Unions dramatically expand your First Amendment rights at work. Most states are ‘at will’ employment states, which means your boss can fire you for pretty much any reason.  Unions change that. With a union, workers gain all sorts of new rights to speak up at work about many issues—and certainly on health and safety issues. And, they gain legal protection if the boss tries to intimidate, discipline, or fire them for doing so.

But more importantly, unions give workers ways to act collectively; and not just as individuals on important issues. For example, our union, the Service Employees International Union is the largest union of healthcare employees in the United States. We were calling out the need for more Personal Protective Equipment very early on as the coronavirus began to spread. Other unions did so too.

In Colorado, it was the labor movement, including SEIU 105, that organized the first press conference of workers speaking out on this over a month ago. 

At work, unions also give workers a way to collectively raise their concerns with management to try and get them resolved, without fear of retribution. 

Front-line workers see many problems that management doesn’t see—because they are doing the front-line work every day. The better employers listen, respond, and make those improvements. 

In our Local, we already have many examples where our members have done just that during the coronavirus.  Those workplaces are safer now—protecting workers, those they serve, and the public. For those employers who don’t listen, unions give workers all sorts of new tools to continue to press those issues forward until the boss does listen.

Any law is only as good as the ability to enforce it. When laws are violated at work, unions provide workers a much easier way to enforce them. Workers don’t need to go out and find a lawyer to help them or try to navigate often complex government bureaucracies on their own. Their union can help them enforce those laws and can often do it much faster.

We must end the silencing of healthcare—and all workers. The issues I’ve described are much more acute during this pandemic, but they have existed long outside of this crisis. Let’s all get to work and make everyone safer now—and in the future.