As Racism Plagues Health Care, Unions Offer a Treatment

Labor News

Reprinted from The American Prospect by on November 18, 2020.

Like many nursing homes across the country, the Genesis HealthCare center in Greenville, Rhode Island, primarily houses white residents and employs people of color. Adelina Ramos, who’s Cape Verdean, works at the center as a certified nursing assistant and faces a number of challenges common to the caregiving profession. Each day, she cares for 11 dementia patients on her own, with that number sometimes rising to 18 if a co-worker can’t come in. The job comes with long hours on her feet and the occasional risk of physical harm when dealing with aggressive patients. Ramos knows and accepts these risks, as she finds purpose in her work—but these challenges have grown far worse since the onset of COVID-19.

Not only have the residents become fearful, as they’re no longer able to recognize their caregivers’ masked faces. Ramos also says she went a week without receiving new personal protective equipment (PPE), though boxes of equipment were stored in the administrator’s office. It wasn’t long into the pandemic before her co-workers started showing symptoms of COVID-19 and began testing positive. Soon, the National Guard stepped in to provide more testing. Though asymptomatic, Ramos tested positive. She likely would have never known her status had it not been for the help of her union.

The Service Employees International Union 1199 New England district had demanded that Genesis provide testing to its employees, which is what led to the National Guard’s intervention. 1199NE also secured additional PPE and won a more extensive sick leave policy in its contracts.

But the experience at Genesis was the exception, not the rule. Fully 93 percent of health care support providers do not have a union to back them up. And without the protection of unions, many health care workers, disproportionately those of color, face a serious threat of dying from COVID-19.  …

TAP 11/18

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Jeff Burman served on the Guild’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2019. He is now retired. He can be reached at