On Thursday, April 30, 2020, employees of the Marion Veterans Affairs location held a rally between 4:00 and 5:00 PM, to demand better protection, policies, and working conditions while they and healthcare workers all across the country battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
We recently brought you articles on the Marion VA’s fight against COVID-19 and what their employees were reporting. Channel 13 News also did a report on how the Marion VA had auctioned off a large amount of PPE in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic spread all across the United States, including right here in Grant County, Indiana.
The VA at large has tried to argue against the claims that have been made by its employees and have denied the reporting done by both us and Channel 13 News, but the Marion workers made sure their voices were heard loud and clear at Thursday’s rally.
We first spoke with Linda Rademaker, who currently serves as President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1020.
We asked Ms. Rademaker to explain the purpose of Thursday’s rally, and she responded that the rally was “about my coworkers coming to the union office with complaints about their veterans’ safety and their own safety.”
Rademaker then dove into the specifics of how her coworkers are (in their opinion) not being adequately protected against the COVID-19 virus.
Employees in the urgent care see the patients that are coming into the hospital because they’re concerned they might have the COVID-19 virus, so they’re sick, they’re coughing, they’re running fevers… and those nurses are only given a surgical mask to wear. Surgical masks don’t protect you from the virus. It protects anybody around you from your spittle touching them and you possibly passing on the virus. But if somebody comes in that’s sick and actually has the virus, that little surgical mask doesn’t protect you. You need your N95 mask, and the N95 masks for those nurses in urgent care are locked in a machine… And in order to get that mask out, they got to justify that. And the management has told them what will justify a use of a N95 mask… if and when you know that somebody’s positive for COVID-19. Well, you’re not going to know that if they’re not tested before they come in, and they’re coming in there to get tested.
Even though Rademaker spoke specifically about the Marion VA employees during this rally, she explained to us that she thinks these problems stem from the very top, within the federal government, which oversees the VA system and its operations.
She explained that the problem with the N95 masks being locked away isn’t unique to the Marion location and that it’s happening at VA’s all over the country, but she also said that this problem shouldn’t even exist. “There’s not a shortage here, we know that masks are delivered here, we know that masks are available, but they’re doing everything they can to prevent the use of them, such as locking them up.”
Rademaker is a registered nurse, and she told us that it used to be quite simple to obtain the personal protective equipment (PPE) that the nurses and doctors now need to fight COVID-19. She says that it used to be that an employee could simply walk right into a supply closet and pick up whatever PPE they needed, but that isn’t the case now.
They changed the locks on that supply closet, and the only person [sic] that has a key is the director, the logistics chief, and a police officer. So you can imagine the process to get anything out of that closet. Basically, if you’re on second or third shift, you got to call the director of nursing and get permission, and then they have to contact the police and ask them to come over and bring the key and let you go in and get what you need.
Rademaker also noted that she wonders whether or not the federal government is “purposefully not giving direction to our directors locally,” and, on top of that, she says the government has continued to display a “deliberate refusal to engage employees’ representatives, such as me — I’m the union president.” The fear for Rademaker is that, what she perceives as negligence on the federal government’s part, “has left VA workers, veterans, and their families more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.”
At this point, we bluntly asked Rademaker whether or not the employees she represents feel like they’re being adequately protected while at work, and Rademaker did not pull any punches.
The staff dont feel like it. I get complaints every day of some problem with the COVID-19 preparedness. Either they need to telework and it’s being denied, they want a reasonable accommodation and it’s being delayed, they’re not getting the masks or the protective equipment that they need, their leave — I’ve got moms telling me that they have children at home and they don’t have any way to pay for the day care or even get their children into day care.
The topic of whether or not VA employees have been able to take some kind of leave during this pandemic came up a lot during our time on location. Rademaker says “there is government leave available, but our management doesn’t even know how to use it, and they’re not being taught how to help the employees use it.” Again, Rademaker says she is afraid the federal government is behind this confusion and difficulty in allowing VA employees to take the leave they’ve supposedly been given. “We think that’s a deliberate obstruction so employees won’t use that leave.”
Chon Jung, a National Representative with AFGE, told us similar things when we interviewed him at the Marion rally. He also explained that VA employees aren’t able to get the leave they need.
In a shocking statement, Jung told us “when an employee has been exposed to COVID, they’re not being given the time to quarantine themselves, and even when they’ve tested positive, they’re being forced to go back to work.” Jung continued by explaining that “Nationwide we actually have 1600 VA employees who have actually tested positive from direct patient care, and they’re having to fight for leave to quarantine themselves.”
Because this statement came as such a shock, we stopped Jung and asked him whether or not we were understanding him correctly: did he really just say that COVID-19 positive employees are being forced to return to work because they can’t get the leave they need while sick?
Jung responded by saying “They’re having to fight for time off work, that is correct.”
Jung then highlighted the struggle VA nurses, doctors, and other staff are facing at this time, and he even called for these employees to receive hazard pay for their work with COVID-19 patients. He also noted the personal stress that these employees are facing on a daily basis, especially when it comes to having to leave their families.
… a lot of these employees are under duress because they actually have to quarantine themselves from their own families. So, we actually have nurses who actually have to rent apartments or share apartments, so they don’t have to go back to their families — nurses and doctors. And not just that, it’s actually even people who are janitorial or facilities maintenance.
The stress surrounding the employees and their families comes from not knowing what they’re going to be forced to encounter every day, which, as Jung says, is a failure on the part of the federal government by not creating or implementing policies that could alleviate those fears of the unknown.
Because of the fact that there’s no national policy for how to deal with this, employees are often times not even told when they’re entering a room with a person who’s tested positive for COVID, so if you go in to change a light bulb or give someone medication, etc., etc., the employees don’t know the hazard they’re actually walking into, because there’s not a plan in place.
Following this rally at the Marion VA, we contacted Public Affairs Officer, Alex Sharpe, whom we’ve spoken with in the past, to get an official reaction from the Veterans Affairs organization at large.
Here is how the VA responded to Thursday’s rally:
VA Northern Indiana Health Care System submits the following response:
Northern Indiana Healthcare System (VANIHCS) PPE practices have helped limit its employee COVID-19 infection rate to 0 percent of the workforce. By contrast, 4.4 percent of University of Washington Medicine employees have tested positive and 2.1 percent of Henry Ford Health System’s workforce has tested positive.
VANIHCS is equipped with essential items and supplies to handle coronavirus cases, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain.
Later today, we will release video footage of our interviews with both Linda Rademaker and Chon Jung. That video will be embedded into this article as soon as it becomes available.
If we receive any new information on what is happening at the Marion VA or what the VA is doing to help their employees across the country, especially if they decide to take action in response to this specific rally, we will bring you those updates.