Jimmy Boegle
Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs was picketed on Thursday, Aug. 27, by employees calling for safer conditions. Credit: Jimmy Boegle

Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) picketed at each of the three Tenet-operated hospitals in the area last week—claiming that employees at the hospitals need to take life-threatening risks every day to care for local patients battling COVID-19.

The members formed picket lines at the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree on Wednesday, Aug. 26, before moving to the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs on Thursday, followed by Indio’s JFK Memorial Hospital on Friday.

“The overlying reason is that we are in a contract negotiation right now, and at the same time, we are fighting to make sure that all of our workers are safe and have enough PPE, or personal protective equipment,” said union member Gisella Thomas via telephone before Friday’s picketing action in Indio. “Tenet is my employer. I’ve been a respiratory therapist for 48 years, and I’ve worked at Desert Regional for 10 years. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I feel unsafe, not just for myself, but for my co-workers, too. If you have co-workers in other facilities who died because they didn’t have a face mask or other PPE, you want to make sure that doesn’t happen in our facilities here.

“We (at Desert Regional) have not had a death yet. We don’t want that to happen, and we want to make sure that we’re safe and protected.”

Tenet spokesman Todd Burke, in a statement issued on Thursday, Aug. 27, said: “While we value all of our employees who are represented by the SEIU-UHW, we are disappointed that the union is taking this approach. We have only been bargaining with the union on a successor contract since May and will continue to negotiate in good faith in hopes of reaching a successful resolution. We are proud of the professionalism and dedication demonstrated by our caregivers and staff during this unprecedented pandemic.”

Later in the statement, Burke noted: “Any employee, physician or vendor entering the hospital is required to wear a face mask. To prevent potential exposure, all physicians, nurses and staff who care for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are required to wear the appropriate PPE, including N95 face masks and face shields or goggles. Employees are provided a new N95 or face mask with each shift.”

That policy, as described by Burke, is part of the problem, as far as Thomas and her picketing co-workers are concerned.

“We’re asking that there be a pandemic/epidemic clause added to our contract that assures every worker that there are provisions so that we are safe, and there’s enough PPE for us at all times,” Thomas said. “For 48 years, when I saw a patient where I needed protection—like gowns, gloves and a mask, a hat and shoe covers—I would put that stuff on before I went into the patient’s room. Then, when I finished doing what I had to with that patient, I’d come out of the room and take everything off. Then, for the next patient, I’d put on all fresh, clean, new PPE—gowns, gloves, the whole bit.

“Today, I’ll use the same N95 mask, with a surgical mask over it, for the 12 hours that I work. Over my 48 years, if I would have done that, (hospital administration) would have fired me. Any hospital would have said, ‘You’re endangering the patients. This is not right. You cannot do this.’ Now, everybody goes from patient to patient and has the same PPE and the same N95 mask in front of their face for the entirety of their shift. Granted, all the federal agencies are saying that this is OK now—but why was it not OK for 48 years, and now it is OK? This is the question I ask as a health-care worker.”

Thomas said she’s concerned not just for herself, her co-workers and her patients; she’s also concerned for her friends and family away from work.

“When I come home (from work), I strip all of my clothes off in the garage,” she said. “I try not to touch anything and take a shower immediately. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t take anything home to my family, but also out into the community—and I’m not the only one. Everyone does this. So we want to make sure that the provisions in our pandemic/epidemic clause state that there has to be enough PPE to do what we were supposed to do for the last 48 years.

“There has to be enough PPE (on hand) for 45 days. If they’re stocking enough, then why is there not enough? Now we’re six months into a pandemic, and we’re still doing the same bullshit, excuse my language. It’s like, ‘Come on! Give us a break. Why can’t you guys pick it up here? How can you expect us to come to work and do our job? Why can’t you provide us with the safety we need to protect our lives?’”

According to Burke’s statement: “We can safely care for our patients with the supplies we currently have. Our team is actively sourcing around the world for additional supplies. We are committed to protecting the health and safety of our patients and staff.”

Thomas said that while she understands hospital administrators are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, her frustration has grown over the last months—especially regarding a lack of transparency.

“I’m sure that (Tenet administrators) have their own frustrations and issues in terms of providing us with the PPE that we need,” she said. “But unfortunately, Tenet is not dealing with their health-care workers in a forthright manner. They don’t even let us know who among our co-workers have caught COVID-19. So, some of us have been exposed and had no idea until we get sick.”

One may assume that she and her co-workers get tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis, given they’re in close contact with infected patients, but Thomas said that’s not necessarily the practice at the local Tenet facilities.

“There is an option available for us to get tested, but they don’t really encourage us to get tested,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, once you are tested, if you test negative, and then later on you have some symptoms, they don’t like to re-test. Or, if there’s somebody who tests positive and has been out, when they need to come back, there’s no more re-testing. After 10 days (of self-quarantining) it’s like, ‘OK, you should be good. Just come back to work.’”

Thomas voiced cautious optimism that the local recent picketing actions staged by both the SEIU-UHW hospital workers and members of the California Nurses Association would eventually result in improved working conditions.

“At the Desert Regional (picket on Thursday, Aug. 27), we were hoping to get a least 100 to 150 people out on the line,” Thomas said, “and we had over 200 union members come out, along with some doctors and nursing staff. We (in the SEIU-UHW) are all the other essential workers, like respiratory therapists, EMTs, lab techs, certified nursing assistants and the transporters.

“We will fight for our rights. At this particular time, I don’t know how that will work out, but we will continue to speak out and speak up, because that’s what we need to do. We can’t just sit back. Hopefully, we’ll come to a mutual agreement in the near future—and if we don’t, then we’ll have to go from there.”

Avatar photo

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...