'Human lives over profit:' VA nurses in Tampa protest workplace safety hazards

Union members gathered outside James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital on Wednesday, joining one of more than 200 protests nationwide demanding protection for veterans and nursing staff at VA facilities. 

Organizers are railing against the VA's decision to eliminate hazard pay for VA staff amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and against what organizers described as an ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment. 

Demonstrators called for the Republican-controlled Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which has already passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. The pending bill would use the Defense Production Act to ramp up domestic production of PPE and force the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases. 

Additionally, The HEROES Act would bring economic relief in the form of cash payments, extended unemployment benefits, and daycare subsidies through the end of 2020. 

Protesters rallied outside the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa on the morning of August 5, 2020. (FOX 13 News)

In an announcement released Tuesday, the union said its members are also demanding an end to systemic racism and union busting at VA facilities across the country. Wednesday's protest in Tampa is one of several coordinated events taking place outside VA facilities across the U.S., including in Chicago, Dayton, Augusta and Manhattan, according to organizers with National Nurses United. 

"Nurses at the James A Haley Veterans’ Hospital are demanding that hospital management be transparent and involve registered nurses in ongoing planning related to COVID-19, a union spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday. "Additionally, they are demanding that RNs have access to safe protective equipment and that RNs who are exposed to COVID-19 get immediate testing. RNs are also insisting that management staff the hospital appropriately so that the veterans receive optimal care." 

Some nurses have reported that when they are exposed COVID-19, they are often told to keep working if they are asymptomatic, putting their patients and coworkers in danger. 

“Nurses know that this country’s rampant social, economic, and racial injustice has been killing our patients all along. COVID-19 is just forcing us as a society to face these problems,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN and NNU executive director. “These recent COVID surges and uncontrolled infections and deaths, the failure of employers to protect our nurses and other workers, the outrageously high rates of unemployment and hunger, the totalitarian crackdown on protesters — every crisis we are seeing now can be traced back to our failure to value human lives over profit.” 

The union asserted that while nurses are forced to reuse personal protective equipment and there often are not enough staff to safely treat patients, HCA, the corporate parent of 15 West Florida hospitals, posted more than $1 billion in profit in the second quarter alone. 

Wednesday afternoon, a hospital spokesperson provided the following statement:

The safety of our staff and our Veterans is always our top concern.  Our employees have performed exceptionally well throughout this national emergency, providing lifesaving care to hundreds of Veterans. The situation outlined during the NNU National Day of Action does not reflect our preparedness and response actions that have proven to keep our patients and employees safe. Additionally, many of the demands are already part of the facility’s operational response to this pandemic and have been for months.  Our labor partners from NNU and AFGE are always invited to participate in our Incident Command meetings, where all planning for our COVID-19 response takes place.
James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital PPE practices have helped limit our current COVID-19 employee infection rate to 0.23 percent of the workforce – much lower than other health care systems. 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. 
James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital provides employees with all required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in accordance with CDC guidelines and the facility is stocked with an adequate supply of PPE for current demand.  
Regarding hazard pay
Hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.