The President's Column: We Are Essential

July 14, 2020

Today, we save lives. Tomorrow, we build a better future.

ggresham_520_feat.jpgDear 1199SEIU Sisters and Brothers,

I am so proud of you and have so much admiration for your hard work, your commitment to our patients, and your courage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. I hope you are just as proud of yourselves.

Especially living in New York City as I do, these past months have been pretty eerie in the epicenter of the virus. There were weeks when nobody was in the streets and nothing was moving in the busiest city in North America. The main sounds in this noisiest of places were the sounds of sirens as emergency personnel tried to save more victims.

And then the #ClapBecauseWeCare movement took hold. Every night at 7 p.m., folks stick their heads out of apartment windows and climb out on their fire escapes to clap, bang pots and cheer for their heroes—you and the other healthcare workers, first responders and essential workers. Across the country, people are doing the same because America’s people want to salute their champions.

Just as firefighters risk everything running into a burning building to rescue people, our members put their health and their lives on the line every day in trying to save the health and lives of their patients. Yet, because of the Trump administration’s denial of the coronavirus as it spread, and its failure to plan and prepare for the pandemic, our hospitals and nursing homes had insufficient quantities of protective gear for our frontline caregivers and too few ventilators and essential life-saving equipment. These failures resulted in the loss of an estimated 30,000 lives in New York State alone.

Nevertheless, our paramedics, nurses, nurse assistants, respiratory therapists, transporters, housekeeping workers and others showed up every day and often worked longer hours and extra days to deliver care to our patients. Entire hospitals were turned into emergency and intensive care units. Nursing homes became hot spots, accounting for more than one third of all COVID deaths. (That shocking figure includes many nursing home workers.) Tens of thousands of 1199 home health workers remained with their patients, many of whom are frail and elderly, among the most vulnerable of all to the virus. Across the healthcare spectrum, 1199 members, often inadequately protected, showed up to care for and comfort their patients, even as family members were barred from visiting During these last few months, a new phrase, “essential workers” has become popular when speaking about healthcare workers and those who pick our crops, slaughter our meat, stock our grocery shelves, collect our garbage, run our bus and train systems, and deliver our mail. Essential workers keep our society safe and our basic needs met, while most of the population shelters in place at home.

It is WE essential workers—not the CEOs and the billionaires—who make our country function. WE are the ones holding society together. And so we need to keep reminding folks, and reminding ourselves, how essential we are, so that now and in the future we are treated with the respect—and the compensation and rights—that are our due.

With well over 100,000 dead from COVID-19, with some 40 million newly without jobs, with so much uncertainty facing our public health, the economy and the political life of our country, everybody understands that the United States that eventually emerges from the pandemic will be a different country than we were before the coronavirus.

There will be new opportunities to reshape our society — but only if we fight for them. With the now widespread recognition that we caregivers are essential, we should demand federal mandates for a living wage, sick leave, hazard pay, family leave—and health care as a right.

Some 30 percent of healthcare workers responding to this national emergency are immigrants. There should be a fast track pathway to citizenship for all who want it.

We 1199 caregivers are fortunate to have our union and, with it, our benefits and protections and a voice on the job. But only one in ten healthcare workers in our country has a union. Non-union caregivers also deserve the right to a union and collective bargaining. These rights are the least we have earned as essential frontline workers. What we do as we approach the November elections will go far in determining how our country views us essential workers and caregivers.

In the meantime, dear sisters and brothers, please know that we 1199SEIU officers and staff recognize just how precious you are. You inspire us and make us honored to work for you. Thank you so much.

1199 Magazine | May / June 2020