Care providers ask Congress to provide hazard pay in the next stimulus bill

SEIU775 organizer Denver Henderson discusses the need for Congress to provide more financial assistances to frontline workers in a pending relief package. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Montana and elsewhere in the country, healthcare workers are calling on Congress to pass a bill to provide more financial assistance for them and others who are on the frontlines of the pandemic.

On Monday, healthcare workers gathered outside St. Patrick’s Hospital to demand that the U.S. Senate pass the Health Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES.

In May, the House passed a version of the HEROES Act that would provide $3 trillion for a number of healthcare programs, including hazard pay for certain healthcare workers who have been left out of the previous three COVID-19 stimulus bills passed by Congress. The $200 billion “Heroes Fund” would provide care providers $13 an hour in hazard pay above their regular pay.

Instead of considering the HEROES Act, the Senate put forth its own bill, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools, or HEALS Act, that would allocate $1 trillion for another round of stimulus checks and more aid for small businesses. No hazard pay was included for healthcare workers.

While members of Service Employees International Union 775 stood at a safe distance with “Hazard Pay” signs, homecare provider Celeste Thompson read a statement from coworker Lori Schwarz describing all the work they do for their clients, from giving them baths and medication to running errands.

She said the addition of hazard pay wasn’t so much about added income as it was about recognition for the essential work she and others do for others during a challenging time.

“This is a hard job – it’s both physically and mentally demanding. And we’ve seen an increase in turnover since the pandemic started,” Thompson said, reading Schwarz’ statement. “The work happens behind closed doors. So we feel ignored, we feel invisible, we feel taken for granted.”

As House and Senate members met to find a solution, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed they meet in the middle and appropriate $2.2 million. As part of that compromise, more money would be made available to small businesses and the Heroes Fund would probably be zeroed out.

Kristi Stacy, a nursing home caregiver, said nursing homes have also seen worker turnover during the pandemic. So they’re often understaffed, with each worker trying to care for up to 20 patients a day.

Also, while medical facilities struggled to get adequate personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, it was even worse for nursing homes. So Stacy and her coworkers had to reuse N95 masks and they couldn’t get proper surgical gloves so they were told to use delicatessen-grade gloves.

The HEROES Act would improve domestic production and national stockpile of personal protection equipment.

“During a pandemic, this is unacceptable. How are we supposed to do our jobs if we don’t have the necessary means to protect ourselves, our patients and our staff?” Stacy said. “Montana is experience big spikes and we don’t want to go through the PPE shortage again.”

As House and Senate members met to find a solution, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed they meet in the middle and appropriate $2.2 million. As part of that compromise, more money would be made available to small businesses and the Heroes Fund would probably be zeroed out.

Registered nurse Loni Velin-Conley, a public health COVID-19 case investigator, was also worried about PPE stocks as the number of active cases is surging in Montana. It’s impossible to track the source of many cases because much of Montana is experiencing community spread.

On Friday, the state reported a daily record of 497 cases, contributing to the total of more than 5,000 active cases. Yellowstone County has the most active cases with 1,164 and 69 deaths. On Monday, Missoula County added one active case for a total of 336 and three deaths.

Although the state’s PPE supplies are better off than they were at the beginning of the pandemic when every state was competing for PPE, Montana’s stockpile may not last long if cases keep increasing at this rate. Velin-Conley pointed out that almost 200 Montana patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, and some have had to rely on rural hospitals, which depend on Montana’s expanded Medicaid program.

The HEROES Act would increase payments to state Medicaid programs for a year and wouldn’t require COVID-19 patients to cost-share for treatment.

Velin-Conley is running for state representative in House District 96 because she said “those working the frontlines and bedsides need a seat at the table.”

“Our healthcare staff, teachers, first responders and other workforces need financial security when they’re required to isolate or quarantine in order to keep their patients, their students and their customers safe,” Velin-Conley said. “If our nation had been prepared to confront this virus as a public health issue, not a political issue, we might not even be in this place of discussing the need for a HEROES Act.”

During the noon hour, SEIU775 organizer Denver Henderson led some of the workers to Sen. Steve Daines’ field office on Front Street to talk to Daines’ staff about their concerns. The office was closed.

Daines spokesman Miles Novak said in an email that the senator has supported hazard pay since the start of the pandemic but doesn’t support the HEROES Act.

“Senator Daines is pushing several bipartisan priorities in the Senate’s next COVID-19 package. What’s important is putting something forward that can get signed into law. As we’ve seen for months now, that will NOT happen with the HEROES act,” Novak said.