On Thursday May 7th, 2020 Ben Speight, Director of AFGE’s Crisis Response Campaign joined Rick to discuss the widespread actions at Veterans Administration facilities across the country to demand safer working conditions and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Ben highlighted the fact that the more members stood up and spoke out, the more they were able to achieve in reaching their demands for better conditions on the job. This interview is an example of workers joining together collectively, fighting for what they need, and winning at the workplace. Ben also highlighted just how important the VA is, not just to veterans, but to the nation as a whole as it provides a last line of defense during times of crisis. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Rick Smith: It is Nurse Appreciation Week. Thank nurses for their service, for their courage, for their knowledge, their experience, their compassion. But right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s a lot more than just a thank you.

These folks are doing heroic work, walking into situations where it’s life and death for them. This is where unions do the best work, being able to stand up and demand better treatment, better conditions. 

We see now VA nurses across the country and healthcare workers have been hitting the streets to raise awareness and talk about the conditions under which they perform the heroic work that they do, and also to demand safer working conditions and more personal protective gear.

That’s why I’ve asked Ben Speight to come talk with us. He’s the Director of AFGE’s Crisis Response Campaign. 

Ben Speight: The AFGE and the National VA Council represents around 250,000 VA workers across the country, in  large metropolitan areas and rural areas in every state and region of the country.

Although the pandemic has had different effects in different parts of the country, there are several things that are arising that are really bringing VA workers together from coast to coast, and that is the shortages of PPE. For way too long now, going into the second month, people or have been reporting these shortages.

Finally this past week, due to workers at the VA organizing through AFGE, the National Nurses Union, and others who were been going to the streets and talking to local media and talking to the public about the fact that they’re having to wear one mask a day or reuse masks way beyond the protocol that had long been established, they have successfully won commitments to receive PPE. 

The other issues that have been raised have been hazard duty pay, paid leave, testing, the access to telework. Those have all been issues that have been a top concern for VA workers wanting to protect not only their lives and their families’ lives, but the lives of veterans that they serve.

It’s been a huge issue. I’m so proud to see people standing up at the front lines of this crisis. 

Rick Smith: You hit a point there at the end that I think is really important for people to understand. It’s just not about keeping the nurses and the healthcare workers safe. It’s also about keeping the patients safe, which is why I’m a big proponent of doing as much telework as possible because there’s a lot of things you can do without having to be right there in the room and having that interaction.

Ben Speight: Absolutely. And there are untold numbers of people within the VA system, both the Veterans Health Administration and the VBA, the benefits side, who have a petition to win telework. 

You may have heard that the VA has a fourth mission. Of course the three main missions of the VA are to provide health care to veterans, to provide benefits, and to provide funeral services.

The fourth mission of the VA is to be the public healthcare safety net when the private and public health care system becomes overcrowded and unsustainable. The VA has already sent staff to state-run veterans hospitals and elsewhere to supplement those staff.

The real concern is that the VA, through and under the Trump administration, has steadily pursued a campaign of privatization that has diminished for many months the staffing levels of the VA across the country.

The VA is the largest union contract, federal or public sector union contract, in the country because it covers more workers from coast to coast than any other. The Trump administration under Secretary Robert Wilkie made a strategic move to attack the unions that represent workers of the VA and has been engaging in a full-throttle attack on the right to bargain and has effectively refused to bargain.

That was all the context that led to the crisis that has happened at the VA. There’s no doubt if VA workers had a seat at the table leading into this crisis as they had in previous pandemics, the VA system would have been far more prepared. It’s really a tragedy what’s happening.

The bright side is that there are VA workers serving their communities. Here in Atlanta, we have the Veteran’s Crisis Line, and those workers successfully won telework over the past few weeks, and they’re able to continue to serve veterans who call in states of distress and other needs and able to continue to support them from their homes and actually seeing their productivity levels increase and they’re no longer being forced to work places that they’re afraid of being exposed. 

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Rick Smith: When you talk about being the safety net for the whole health care system, that’s something I don’t think anybody’s ever really talked about as a mission of the VA.

The last time I had the President of AFGE on the program, he said there were something like 50,000 open positions throughout the VA, many of them in health care. If we would have filled those positions during the last three and a half years, we may have been better off down the road.

Ben Speight: It’s really a failure of leadership at the highest levels. When you have somebody appointed like Robert Wilkie, who’s leading the VA, who’s completely tone deaf to the reality, that’s on the ground.

The only way to shed light on the problem is to have frontline workers continue actions like we’ve had in cities like Biloxi, MS; Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; West Palm Beach and Bay Pines, FL; Houston, TX; Las Vegas, NV. 

These are nurses, workers in administrative positions, housekeepers who are coming out, and they’re all sharing their common concerns. As a labor organizer to take a crisis like this where people are desperate for change, to turn that into a movement that I can actually win. We’re going in with real tangible policy changes that the VA can implement.

Right now, the VA has the authority on a regional basis to implement hazard pay, which is called retention incentives, of 10 to 20% hourly increases for all their workers. They have done that in certain regions of the country. They ought to do that nationwide, and they ought to do that just not just for nurses but also the housekeepers and police officers at the VA as well. 

The other thing that they can do is establish paid emergency leave. A lot of folks, don’t know the Family First Act. The first stimulus bill that was passed  and implemented April 1st, actually allowed the VA to exclude its healthcare workforce from the additional two weeks of paid week.

All the other federal workers and other workers have two weeks paid leave emergency leave. The workers at VA medical centers across this country, workers at VA community living centers and nursing homes, workers at the VA across the country had been denied additional paid leave. 

They have had to exhaust already limited paid leave that they’ve had, and then when they ran out of that paid leave, they have been listed as AWOL and cannot take leave without facing discipline for it.

The people who are out there fighting every day are providing these services to veterans who have a higher risk because of the health history and the age of many of our veteran population.

It is so inspiring to see folks who are stepping up and making a difference in these places that they’ve had these actions. We’ve seen VA administrators and directors offer more PPE. All of a sudden they had it, they found it. 

They’ve offered incentives, retention bonuses, the hazard pay. They have offered new lines of communication with the union. Collective action gets the goods, and that’s what we’re trying to encourage people to do.

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Rick Smith: It’s amazing what they’re willing to give up when you demand it.

I want to highlight one of the points you were talking about additional paid time off and ensuring that people have that. This isn’t just to go on vacation. This is about mental health. My fear, especially with nurses and people in the health industry, is that the stress that they’re under, the pressure that they’re under, the daily concern about getting sick and dying, that weighs heavily on you. We need to make sure that people get a little time to recharge, to refocus. Right now that’s so important. 

Ben Speight: You’re having that coupled with 12-hour days. People are working knowing that they’re leaving their family behind and having to come back home.  The time that they would need to feel comfortable.  Just to greet their family again is filling their uncompensated time.

What we’re concerned with, too, is that, in the states that are reopening, if those currently teleworking are ordered back to work. Why bring people back to a facility that is going to further expose those who are currently working at the facility and everybody else? Without adequate testing that simply can not be done. So AFGE is pushing for that return to work process to be done in a way that puts workers at the table to make sure it’s [done in a safe manner]. 

Rick Smith: It’s not unique to VA nurses or people who are working in the VA to have this kind of stress. The difference is, is a lot of those nurses in the VA have people like you fighting for them. Sadly, in many communities across this country, the nurses don’t. Do you have any advice for those folks? 

I believe there is going to be a massive explosion of union organizing happening because I think painfully apparent that even with all of the praise, all the platitudes, all of the pennies that they’re throwing, you’re just a worker, you’re a negative on the bottom line, and we have to get you to do the job regardless of what it means to you.

Ben Speight:  The people who do this work have a huge heart. It’s that passion for humanity that is compelling them. Whether it’s the National Nurses Union or nonunion workers who are confronting those who are at the behest of big business, rushing to reopen the States.

We as a labor movement, as working people in general, have to go beyond the thank you’s and follow the lead of the healthcare workers. They know what they’re talking about. 

If I’m trying to get my truck fixed, I’m going to a mechanic. If I’m trying to save a public health crisis and save lives, I’m going to listen to those on the front lines.

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