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Bay Pines veterans hospital employees face unsafe working conditions, union says

Union members plan a socially-distant rally on Monday to draw attention to their safety concerns.
A sign notifying a vehicle of a coronavirus roadside screening checkpoint as vehicles enter the Bay Pines VA Hospital in Bay Pines.
A sign notifying a vehicle of a coronavirus roadside screening checkpoint as vehicles enter the Bay Pines VA Hospital in Bay Pines. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 24, 2020

Conflicting updates on COVID-19 cases and insufficient personal protection equipment have created unsafe working conditions at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg, according to a union representing about 1,400 employees.

Department of Veterans Affairs employees nationwide have criticized the agency’s coronavirus planning and lack of staffing protections in recent days, as nearly 1,900 of its healthcare workers have contracted the virus and 20 have died, according to the Associated Press.

At least five workers at Bay Pines have tested positive for COVID-19, said hospital spokeswoman Melanie Thomas.

Tatishka Thomas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees union Local 548, said that Department of Veterans Affairs reports on the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19 at Bay Pines are not up to date.

As of April 24, Bay Pines publicly reported 14 confirmed cases of patients with COVID-19. Thomas said the number should be 20, per a recent employee operations call.

There has also been conflicting communication from Bay Pines leaders on how to keep employees safe, Thomas said, as union members reported that workers who are immunocompromised still are being asked to come to work.

Workers are not always told when new personal protection equipment shipments come in, Thomas said, and staff members who wear surgical masks are meant to wear the same mask for a full week.

In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general conducted a study that found Bay Pines lacked nursing staff, protective N95 masks, blood bank supplies and housekeeping management.

The local union sent a list of proposals to Bay Pines leaders on April 22 regarding its concerns. Among them are expanded telework options for employees and safety measures for employees dealing with waste removal of COVID-19 patients.

In a response to the Tampa Bay Times, Bay Pines said it “has all needed supplies on hand.”

“Staff who work in clinical areas receive one new surgical mask per day. Any employee working in a non-clinical area receives one surgical mask per week. Staff members who require an N95 receive a new one each day,” the hospital said. For employees who are immunocompromised, the hospital said it has accommodation processes in place, as well as the option of appropriate leave.

Earlier this month, the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council, which represents 260,000 Department of Veterans Affairs employees, directed a petition at Pres. Donald Trump, Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert Wilkie and members of Congress. They called for 14 days paid leave for employees exposed to COVID-19 and clear communication to employees of COVID-19 cases in VA facilities.

Due to this national demand to bargain, Bay Pines said, “it is inappropriate for local bargaining at this time."

The Department of Veterans Affairs released a statement Friday saying that between March 29 and April 11, it hired 3,183 new staff members nationally, of which 981 are registered nurses. Bay Pines said it has 30 new nursing hires starting on Monday.

On Thursday, there were 6,238 veterans confirmed positive for COVID-19 diagnosed and treated at veteran facilities across the country, with 391 dead. Those numbers rose to 6,391 and 400 respectively on Friday.

At the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, 15 veterans had tested positive for COVID-19 by April 24, and three had died, according to hospital spokeswoman Shayna Rodriguez. Six Haley employees have tested positive, three of whom have recovered and returned to work with the other three remaining at home in isolation, she said. Only one employee had a potential work-related exposure, she said.

“We have enough supplies and are continually monitoring our inventory, aggressively procuring additional items and cross-leveling across the VA system to plan for future needs,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

Members of the Bay Pines union plan to host a socially-distant rally on Monday in front of the medical center to draw attention to their demands for keeping workers safe.

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