Hospital worker contracts COVID-19; union demands hazard pay, better working conditions

SEIU Healthcare Illinois wants Chicago-area hospitals to provide service and maintenance workers with hazard pay and also to improve working conditions.

SHARE Hospital worker contracts COVID-19; union demands hazard pay, better working conditions
COVID-19 testing area at University of Chicago Hospital in March.

A screening area for COVID-19 at University of Chicago Hospital. Union representing hospital workers in the Chicagoland area are demanding better working conditions and hazard pay during the pandemic.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Candice Martinez has worked 12-to-16-hour shifts at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for the last month as the hospital faced both its normal influx of patients and the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

She’s paid about $15-an-hour to sanitize hospital rooms, and was proud to be fighting on the front line against the coronavirus.

But then, two weeks ago, she started to come down with symptoms.

First it was a headache, Then a body ache. Then a sore throat.

A test confirmed it. She had COVID-19, and she believes it happened while cleaning rooms.

Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, said this is all too common for union members like Martinez.

Now the union is demanding that hospitals across the Chicago area provide hazard pay and better working conditions for those front-line workers who are especially vulnerable.

SEIU Healthcare has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

“Existing workplace policy and procedures has really made it hard for workers to follow CDC guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID19,” Kelley said. “Workers are not being updated on current protocols.”

Other problems, Kelley said, are “not having enough [personal protective equipment] under CDC guidelines or even knowing where supplies are.”

Martinez said the only protective gear provided are surgical masks and gloves; she didn’t have access to any of the more-effective N95 respiratory masks. Workers also aren’t warned if they are entering a room where a COVID-19 patient is being treated because of potential privacy law violations, she said.

A sign is placed outside the room informing workers to take “droplet precautions” — the virus can spread through respiratory droplets caused from coughing — but sometimes those signs are removed before workers see them.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone,” said Christopher King, spokesman for Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “We continue to follow the recommendations of the CDC for personal protection equipment and have been fortunate to date to secure sufficient personal protective equipment to do so.”

King didn’t comment on whether the hospital would issue hazard pay, but said they are “always open to discuss any issue or concern” the union has about safety. 

Kelley wants hospitals to: pay employees time-and-a-half during the pandemic; begin temperature testing everyone entering and leaving the hospital; limit visitation; provide two weeks paid time off for those sick; access to COVID-19 testing for all health care workers.

“Service workers are just as important as anyone else who works in the hospital,” Kelley said. “We believe that right now is a time for hospital workers and the hospital systems to work together.”

Wellington Thomas, an EMT at The Loretto Hospital, said his hospital’s supply of N95 masks is dwindling and they don’t have any large masks for him to wear when interacting with COVID-19 patients.

“Aren’t we worth hazard pay?” Thomas said. “Pay is being handed out to grocery store workers and other essential services, why aren’t we getting it?”

Loretto did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some workers, like Kim Smith, a patient care tech at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said she doesn’t feel safe going to work anymore.

“Hospitals were once a safe haven and are now becoming a death trap,” Smith said. “Nobody chose this field to lose their life, we chose this field to help and preserve life.”

Martinez is keeping her high spirits high despite the uncertainty of her diagnosis.

“I am not the greatest, but I am not as bad as other people,” she said. “Every morning I’m waking up and realizing I still have symptoms and I am still sick with this and wondering if It is going to get worse or not.”

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