Washington, D.C. – In honor of National Nurses Week,American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President Everett Kelley joined AFGE members – who work as nurses within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DOD) – to discuss the challenges they and other federal health-care workers face on the front lines as a result of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Despite what can seem like daily criticisms and insults hurled at government employees, you are the ones showing up every day to keep this country moving forward in the face of public health and economic emergencies we’ve never seen before,” President Kelley told the group of nurses and the audience watching via Facebook Live. “Every day I wake up and am amazed at the incredible selflessness of AFGE health care members serving on the front lines of this pandemic.”
For months, nurses across these two agencies, which primarily service former and current members of the armed services, have raised the alarm about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), standard testing and leave policies for exposed employees, telework opportunities for eligible staff, and hazard pay despite the immense risks employees take going into worksites every day.
“We give all to care for our nation’s heroes; that’s the type of care that they deserve,” said Barbara Galle, president of AFGE Local 3669 and a registered nurse at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in Minnesota. “Not having enough masks is unprecedented. Nurses do not practice wearing one mask for an entire shift. No nurse will tell you that is a safe practice. People deserve proper care and we deserve proper PPE for the care that we’re providing. We shouldn’t have to put our health, our veterans’ health, our families’ health, and the communities’ health at risk by not having PPE.”
One major problem – that AFGE has raised long before the COVID-19 crisis – is the understaffing of health-care systems within the federal government. Prior to the VA’s rapid hiring – in response to the pandemic – there were approximately 50,000 vacancies. Inadequate staffing levels are not exclusive to the VA; DoD health care employees have also sounded the alarm about being short staffed and employees being forced to work in areas they do not have the training for due to lack of adequate staff.
“The biggest concerns I’m seeing from my fellow colleagues is the need to be floated to other units and those nurses not having the current wherewithal or knowledge right now to carry on the mission – because of their lack of training, their skillsets are inadequate at times and just the fear factor of going to a new environment,” said David Pitts, AFGE Local 1410 executive vice president and a critical care nurse at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “Day after day we hear stories of nurses saying they did not sign up for this – is it unprecedented, it is highly unprecedented – we didn’t come into nursing with the inherent risk that one day we would be dying possibly.”