When it Began: Union Health Local Leaders Testify on Coronavirus, Health Care Funding

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By MIKE LEE

While the coronavirus crisis continues to build, DC 37 leaders testified March 5 before a special joint hearing of the New York City Council’s Hospitals and Health committees at City Hall.

The hearing, which lasted well into the early evening, focused on the city’s response to the impact of the virus. At the time, no one knew that by May 14, there would be 186,293 cases of COVID-19, with 49,516 hospitalized, and a staggering 15,349 dead.

Speaking at the hearing was United Federation of Nurses & Epidemiologists Local 436 President Judith Arroyo, NYC Health Department Technical Professional Employees Local 3005 President Jeff Oshins, and Local 2507 FDNY Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics Vice President Michael Greco.

In her testimony, Arroyo discussed the action her members took during the crisis, working overtime, and in some cases double shifts, to provide information and care to the public.

“The public health epidemiologists are the medical detectives, and many are working overtime,” Arroyo said. “Our nurses have responded by going to providers, answering questions from public health professionals since the beginning of February.”

Arroyo told the Council that 800 Local 436 nurses work in the public school system, addressing the issues involved in dealing with the coronavirus threat.

“They have received the information they need to do what they have to for the school system. However, I am concerned about the nursing shortage in the school system,” Arroyo said, adding that some schools use contractors who do not have access to students’ health records.

On March 15, Mayor de Blasio announced the closure of New York City schools until April 20. Cafeteria workers, who are Local 372 members, reported for work on March 16. All other school-based employees, including School Crossing Guards, were told to report to work on March 17.

Local 3005 President Jeff Oshins followed with his testimony. “It is my members who work at the city’s public health labs that are conducting the tests,” said Oshins, whose local represents the city’s Health Department technical and professional employees.

“I am astonished that we only have 1,000 tests that can be done,” Oshins said. “Not per day, but in total. I don’t understand how in other countries they can have 10,000 tests per day, while we are so limited.

“As we expect the number of coronavirus cases to increase and to have people tested, we need to know that we have our members working,” Oshins said, explaining the need for more workers and more testing kits. By March 14, it was reported that 23,000 test kits arrived at the DOHMH laboratory. Shortly thereafter, two companies, Roche and Thermo Fisher, were granted emergency approval by the federal government to manufacture test kits.

Local 2507 Vice President Michael Greco testified about the increased workload on his  union’s first responders. 

“We’re doing 1.5 million calls a year. So if you were to have another half million calls in a pandemic, you would overwhelm the system,” Greco said.

That week, one EMS worker had tested positive for the virus and was in quarantine, along with five co-workers. Weeks later, at the height of the pandemic, more than 1,300 were out sick, and six EMS workers have died, including one by suicide.

Four days later, on Monday, March 9, Ralph Palladino, 2nd Vice President of Local 1549 that includes workers in the city hospitals and clinics, spoke out at a Hospitals Committee hearing at City Hall.

“The coronavirus spread and influenza epidemic are reminders that a strong public health system is needed in this city. The human cost in lives and economic ripples the virus attack is causing proves this,” Palladino said. “It makes no sense to be proposing cutting public health programs.”

Photos by Mike Lee

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