By Sheri Williams
Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill crafted by union healthcare workers that created a first-in-the-nation law requiring hospitals and healthcare facilities to stockpile personal protective equipment to ensure front line workers and patients have the equipment they need to stay safe.
The law was backed by the California Nurses Association and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, both of whose members have been on the frontlines of the pandemic since it began.
“The COVID-19 pandemic caught our hospitals by total surprise,” said SEIU-UHW in a statement. “Overnight, managers locked masks and wipes up because of short supply and told healthcare workers to recycle our PPE. We started taking extra precautions for ourselves and our patients but many of us still got sick, and some workers even lost their lives.”
California Nurses Association President Zenei Cortez said in a statement, “We want to make hospitals in the state responsible for their own workers. Hospitals are responsible for providing a safe workplace and that includes PPE. They should not be relying exclusively on support from federal or state government stockpiles to provide PPE for nurses and other healthcare workers.”
With the help of State Senators Richard Pan and Connie Leyva, SB 275 was introduced in September and signed into law shortly after by Newsom, in a quick turnaround of legislation that highlighted the urgency of the situation.
“The first three months of the pandemic, California’s healthcare workers faced what we’d most feared: that we would become the face of the COVID-19 pandemic because so many of us would get sick for lack of personal protective equipment,” said Lisa Ott, a respiratory therapist and member of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers. “It is essential that we learn the hard lessons of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Kathy Montanino, a registered nurse who works in an ICU and is a member of SEIU, said, “My hospital was completely underprepared for the crisis we faced, and California has to do better so we never again put nurses in the position to choose between serving the community and staying alive.”
The stockpile of protective gear will also help to alleviate the uneven toll of the pandemic on communities of color, who are disproportionately represented among workers in the hospital, nursing home, and janitorial fields.
“Patients, families, and communities across the state, but especially in poor Black and brown communities, were exposed to the virus because workers weren’t protected,” said Joyce George, Healthcare Justice Leader, a patient and an advocate for patients. “A lot of sickness, suffering, and even death have come from not taking care of healthcare and other essential workers.”
The new law requires that hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, dialysis clinics and medical practices that are part of an integrated health system are required to have a 45-day surge-level PPE stockpile by Jan. 1, 2023. The PPE must be “new and not previously worn or used” and providers must provide appropriate PPE upon request of healthcare workers.
Providers are subject to fines up to $25,000 for each violation of the new law if they do not comply.
“This victory for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones, and our patients didn’t just happen, we fought for it, and we won,” said SEIU-UHW in a statement.