Photo courtesy AFSCME Council 13

Guest Commentary: Understaffing, Underfunding Risk Health, Safety of Workers at 24/7 Facilities

January 24, 2021

By DAVID HENDERSON, Executive Director AFSCME 13 Council 13

Front-line workers have never stopped serving the public and keeping society afloat throughout the devastating and difficult battle against COVID-19. AFSCME Council 13 proudly represents many of those workers at hundreds of employers, including 24/7 facilities like jails and prisons, nursing homes and hospitals, 911 centers, veterans centers, centers for the intellectually disabled, emergency response services, and more.

Understaffing continues to be a major issue at these kinds of facilities, and the workforce is getting stretched even thinner as employees get sick with COVID-19. At many of these workplaces, managers are requiring overtime for the remaining employees instead of ensuring proper staffing levels. This is an inadequate solution that only endangers workers, their families, the communities they live in, and the people they oversee and care for. Forcing them to work overtime increases the time they are in close contact with others, increasing the chance of catching coronavirus. It can also cause exhaustion, which weakens the immune system.

Direct action and support are needed now to fill vacancies and meet complements at 24/7 facilities, including jails and prisons, which have been ravaged by coronavirus. A threat to one person in a correctional facility, whether it’s a corrections officer or a nurse, or an inmate, is a threat to everyone there.

AFSCME stands ready to work with employers on addressing these issues. We are not interested in meeting complements through temporary outsourcing that will eventually return us to the current status quo. We are interested in permanent solutions to the staffing shortages that keep employee safety at the forefront.

We also recognize that these employers need immediate action from the federal government. The COVID relief package enacted in December, which did include some helpful public funding and $600 checks for workers, was just a small down payment toward funding the front lines. Public services like those provided by AFSCME members in state, county, city, and municipal governments, as well as school districts and healthcare facilities, require much more funding to stay afloat and avoid furloughs. We cannot defeat this virus or reopen America if those workers are laid off, and all the workers who make this country happen deserve more than a few hundred dollars to survive.

In addition to sufficient staffing levels, employers must ensure safe workplaces as COVID cases continue to climb and on-the-job fatalities increase. We need to make sure employers allow for remote work when possible and physical distancing when in-person, as well as good ventilation, access to personal protective equipment, and paid leave policies that let sick employees take time off without fearing income loss or unemployment.

This health crisis has exposed and exacerbated America’s pre-existing labor crisis, which has reminded us that unionizing your workplace is a great way to protect workers, pandemic or not. This goes for the health care professionals, grocery store employees, delivery drivers and all essential employees who have kept us going through this crisis. Union members earn more money per week than their non-union counterparts on average, and they can negotiate for safer working conditions and paid leave policies.

Americans are relying on the Biden administration and members of Congress to act immediately to launch a proper federal response to this awful pandemic by passing that desperately needed funding for workers, businesses, public services, and state and local governments.

We are all in this together to fight for workplaces that are safe and public services that are fully staffed. It is time to call on our elected officials at the federal and state levels to take action. If we do not protect the workers who are essential to ending the health and economic crises we are facing, then none of us are safe.

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