What America’s Biggest Nursing Union Wants

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S1: Quick note, at the top of the show, we’re recording this remotely and the sound quality may not be what it is in the studio.

S2: When I asked Sandy Cortez why she wanted to be a union leader, she had a very direct answer.

S3: I’ve always been somebody who would say something if I see something that needs to be said.

S2: Jenny Cortez is the co-president of National Nurses United, the largest nurses union in the country, and represents about one hundred and fifty thousand workers. Right now, she has something to say.


S3: I want to be the voice for those nurses who do not have the courage or who are intimidated by management and the union. It has allowed me to speak out without fear of retaliation because I have a meeting, an organization that will back me up for telling the truth.

S2: Over her four decades spent as a nurse, Xeni has seen her fair share of outbreaks, but never anything like this. It’s not the pandemic that shocks her, but the way she and her colleagues have been asked to approach it and the way they’ve been punished for trying to take matters into their own hands.

S4: Some of our supervisors and our managers have threatened suspension or even termination if we brought our own protective equipment.


S3: So we held public information rallies and we did a media campaign to say, you know, if you’re not able to provide us with what we need, then we will buy our own and let us do that.


S2: Then you’ve seen the news around the country of hospitals skimping on PPE, nurses being let go to spend.

S5: This week in Camden County, a nurse at Virtual Vorhees Hospital sent home for wearing and N-95 masks that she brought from home. That nurse has now been fired.

S6: Dawn, this March 24th shift brief from St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, part of baok hair, instructs employees they should not be wearing masks or gowns if not taking care of an isolation patient.


S2: No exceptions, Baker tells many, many Americans are not working right now. But for those who are workers at fast food restaurants, transit agencies, Instacart, Amazon, it’s been an unexpected moment for labor organizing.

S7: And that’s because workers feel vulnerable to attack.

S2: Why do we want hospitals? This fight is starting to spill into the public eye as we watch working conditions for nurses across the country deteriorate, according to Bloomberg. There are even grumblings about unionization among hospital doctors, a group that’s typically identified more with management.

S8: It’s interesting. I don’t think people think of hospitals as being a typical workplace with a typical labor management structure in the same way you would think of a factory floor or something like that.


S9: You know, it’s really interesting because before the pandemic, the public saw you as the nurse and they did not see the labor side of being a nurse when at some point in the past when we went out for a strike, people saw us as saying, you are professionals. What? Why are you striking? It’s interesting, but we continue to educate. And until the people tell the public that we are out here really for you and for the public, because for the community, because we are fighting for better working conditions so that we will be better able to take care of you.


S10: So I think the public does not did not see that the labor aspect of being a nurse.


S9: And I think with what’s going on now that they’re starting to see the real world of nurses working in the hospital of how it is with nurses at the center of the Corona virus response, nursing unions are more active than ever.

S11: It’s easy to think of health care workers as one big group, but hospitals are workplaces. They have labor and they have management. And right now, labor is not happy today on what next.

S2: Jenny Cortez explains why a crisis is the right time for nursing unions to stand up for their rights. I’m Henry Goodbar, filling in for Mary Harris. Stay with us.

S12: Back in January, National Nurses United joined with colleagues abroad to write a letter to the World Health Organization. And that letter he and her fellow nurses asked the W.H.O. for guidelines to treat the Corona virus. It was new then. It wasn’t even a public health emergency, according to the W.H.O.. They waited and waited, but didn’t get a response. Does any lack of response wasn’t surprising, unfortunately.


S3: Maybe because the nursing profession is majority are women. They perhaps dismissed it like a bunch of women whining and complaining.

S13: Do you feel like that? Has that been something that you’ve felt historically as a nursing union leader that that nurses are treated differently because it tends to be a majority female profession?

S3: I yes, I do believe that that’s the case. If you look at the firefighters and police force, they do have summative eligibility that anything that they acquire, it is assumptive to say that they acquired that on the job. If firefighter contracts cancer, lung cancer, it’s assumed that he got it from working as a firefighter. I’m not condoning that. They should not be getting it. I’m happy for them that they have it. But nurses as a profession do not have presumptive eligibility.


S12: Presumptive eligibility. It’s a term I had to look up, but in practice, it’s pretty simple. In California, Rossini works as a nurse. Cops and firefighters get workers comp for illnesses or injuries they might have picked up on the job without proof. Nurses do not. And right now, more than ever, that doesn’t seem fair.

S10: Yes. And for a long time, they’ve always been called the first responders. Health care workers have not been considered first responders until this pandemic happened.

S14: I want to go back a moment. How long have you been a nurse? Over four decades.

S13: Four decades. Wow. So you’ve seen I imagine you’ve seen all kinds of stuff in the hospital. I’m wondering how this how covered is different from the perspective of a caregiver.


S3: So if I may share with you, when the AIDS epidemic started in the late 70s, early 80s, patients would come in with the diagnosis of fever and with unknown origin. So they don’t know where the feeder fever, fever, high fever came from. And back in the days, you know, if you have a high fever, you will be admitted to the hospital for observation. That in itself started with the younger generation. So it was alarming. Why is it that certain population are being hit with that kind of diagnosis? And you’re you know, people acted people in position, meaning the World Health and the CDC. They acted promptly and looked into it. And back then, hospital administration allowed the frontline workers, especially as nurses, to use professional judgment. Meaning we were not stopped from using gloves. They were not stopped from using masks. We were not stopped from using gowns. When we saw that, we needed to use it to take care of the patient.


S15: This time around, organizations like the W.H.O. and the CDC have been way behind the ball and hospitals have used their guidance, sent nurses to work unprepared, even as protocol has evolved. U.S. hospitals have invoked the well-known PPE shortage to ask nurses to reuse gloves and gowns. One Illinois hospital told nurses to wear the same in ninety five masks until it literally fell apart. Hospital in the Bronx as the New York Yankees to donate pinstripe rain ponchos.

S8: Does that situation in the hospitals stem from the national shortage of PPE personal protective equipment, or is that more related to decisions that are being made by individual hospital managers?

S4: OK, so I think it’s both both reasons. The two reasons that you just said, but coming from where I am, there’s a lot of teepees that are available. I mean, some of our nurses bought masks on Amazon. Oh, wow. It’s their. But I think it comes from the standpoint of how much money I would be really willing to spend. This is an administrator talking.


S13: So you’re saying the administrators think, well, there are masks out there, I could buy them, but they’re really expensive right now and I’m not sure this is necessary.

S4: Yes, that’s that’s my point. But it’s so infuriating. And I am like lost for words because I’m talking to you right now. I’m crying because this is so frustrating. This shit did not happen. We’ve lost so many nurses, not just here in the US, but our colleagues from around the world. Lives have been lost over this because we’re being told there’s no no enough PPE, you know, that’s available. But let’s use what we have now. Do not hoard them. Let’s allow the frontline workers to use it. Then hopefully it will not spread because we are being protected for all. Oh, we could be vectors. Right.


S15: This then, he says, is where the union comes in. National Nurses United has held protests outside of hospitals. It says are putting workers at risk. Its members feel empowered to talk to local TV reporters and the union has even produced ads.

S16: Our health care system is not equipped to handle a covered 19 crises administration could have prepared months ago. America will soon be open for business. Hospital industry, is that about patient care? It’s about profits. So now nurses like me take the biggest risks and it’s going to impact you.

S15: We asked for hospital executives. They say National Nurses United is exploiting a crisis.

S8: For example, in El Paso, Las Palmas del Sol put out a statement saying the National Nurses Union is trying to use this crisis to advance its own interests, organizing more members. And then in Las Vegas, the head of Mountain View Hospital said this is not a time to create conflict and dissension within health care organizations. What do you say to people who come at nurses and at the union with that criticism that this is not the right time?

S4: Well, you know, speaking because you need proper protective equipment does not mean the right time. You say it. If it’s not there, it doesn’t pick and choose which time you would do it. And I’m I’m really very frustrated with those hospitals because there was no work stoppage. Those rallies were held just a couple of hours. And the nurses who were out there telling the public were not working nurses and stopped working to go out to protest. Right. So there was that work stoppage. And if they’re saying that we are creating conflict, that conflict has always been there.


S1: The conflict has always been there before. All this National Nurses United pushed for changes in patient ratio. How many nurses to a patient in a hospital?

S17: California changed its laws accordingly. And other states are working on it to. A big win for them during this pandemic came when California agreed to rent hotel rooms for health care workers. That means nurses don’t have to worry. They’re taking the virus home between shifts. Still, I wondered how many of the things the union is fighting for will last beyond this moment.

S13: So many of these changes seem very specific to the crisis we’re in right now, whether it’s about the wearing, the masks when dealing with the patients or having accommodations that are separate from family. When you’re working, are there changes you see coming around that will improve conditions for nurses in the long term? In a way that goes beyond what’s happening right now.

S18: I’m hoping that that would be the case, but I’m thinking that. The hospitals are crying poor this time. And so many times. But now, more than ever, because they claim that they have been spending way too much money on things associated with the Corona virus. So I’m thinking ahead that they will say they’re very, very poor because the budget or the money that they have in the coffers have been spent on this pandemic.

S17: Here’s the thing. Well, it’s definitely a busy time for some nurses. It’s a dicey moment for the profession. Nurses and doctors offices, clinics have been furloughed or laid off, and rural hospitals deprived of revenues from postponed elective surgeries are going bankrupt.

S19: Nurse jobs are disappearing now. And as anything, they’ll be one of the first things to get cut when the pandemic ends, pandemic hits. Any hopes hospitals will be ready for the next time around?


S10: We could have prepared for this pandemic a long time ago. But hospitals do not want to spend on something that they might or may not use in the future.

S20: So.

S21: They need to be prepared with whatever comes, just like for the nurses. We go in to the hospital not knowing what’s in store for us on our shift.

S10: But we are prepared to face it. So they should be the same hospital should be the same.

S22: Spend the money on something that could be prevented from happening in the future.

S11: Well, Xeni, thank you so much for taking a minute to chat with us. I really appreciate it.

S10: Thank you. Thank you so much.

S15: Danny Cortez is the co-president of National Nurses United and an R.N. at the Kaiser Permanente South San Francisco Medical Center. And that’s the show. What next team wants to thank you for calling us and leaving messages on how you’re getting through this very strange period.

S23: Here’s one that really warmed our hearts.

S24: Hi, this is Jenny calling from Bergen County, New Jersey. I’m a nurse and I feel this was this year without me.

S25: When your doctor gets calls in your head, she really spoke to me like when I tried to talk to it, talk to other people about it who aren’t in the profession.

S24: No, they really don’t have it. And I feel pretty alone. But when I went to her class podcast, it didn’t make you feel so alone. So thank you.

S25: And then listen to your podcast most every day. Thank you. I appreciate it. OK. Thanks. Hi.

S23: Our number is 2 0 2 8 8 8. Twenty five. Eighty eight.

S26: Your voicemail could inform. Our reporting will be played on the show.

S27: So give us a ring. Thanks for listening. I’m Henry Goodbar and I’ll be back here tomorrow. Remember the social distance?