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Unmasking the Silence: COVID-19 Limiting Healthcare Workers’ Voice

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept its way across the globe, placing various categories of workers in increasingly precarious situations. Mass layoffs, rolling furloughs, and skyrocketing unemployment claims have dominated the headlines, with economists signaling a burgeoning recession. “Essential” workers, the people keeping American healthcare, food, and utility sectors (among many others) running, face countless challenges each day they report for work. In many of these jobs, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the prescribed social distancing protocols, bringing workers face-to-face (or rather face-to-viral droplet) with COVID-19. There have been increasing reports of poor conditions at countless workplaces, from hospitals to shipping and distribution centers. However, when workers try to speak out and fix these issues, they find that they have been silenced.

Hospitals across the nation are taking a lot of flack for keeping their employees from speaking to media outlets about their workplaces. The most common complaint appears to be that doctors and nurses are being tasked to treat COVID-19 patients without the proper masks and protective equipment. It’s no surprise that the United States is struggling with obtaining and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to its healthcare workers, given the consistent news stories about the federal government and their “personal stockpile” of supplies not being made available to individual states. Thus, nurses, doctors, and the like are turning to the public to voice their discontent, as they are on the frontlines of a deadly pandemic with no defense. Hospitals are undoubtedly trying to protect their image by asking employees not to speak out about the treacherous scenes unfolding within their walls. However, healthcare workers have a right to a safe and well-equipped workplace to do their jobs effectively. They’re being lauded as heroes, and they absolutely are. They’re also regular people. They’re scared, stressed, and confused, just like the rest of us. They’re trying to keep their families healthy and put food on the table. However, they can’t do their jobs effectively and safely without the right equipment. Similarly, they shouldn’t fear for their jobs when they speak out as a last resort to get what they need.

The most obvious solution is to ensure that hospitals are well equipped with ample PPE and similar supplies to ensure that our nation’s healthcare workers aren’t walking into battle without protection. However, we are past the point of preparation. Healthcare workers are actively fighting this virus, and when they are without PPE, that demand needs to be met immediately. Hospitals should not be getting in the way in order to protect their image. Not only does this put more lives at risk, it very likely violates their employees’ rights afforded by the National Labor Relations Act. This is no time for hospitals to try to control the narrative of this pandemic. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 is what really controls the narrative, no matter how much hospitals attempt to silence their employees. That’s why not allowing them to speak out and ask for protection is counter-intuitive. Such behavior is only going to put healthcare workers at a disadvantage.

So, how do we get ahead of this virus? The answer is simple. We need to be empowering healthcare workers and listening to their cries for help, not suppressing them. When hospitals allow their employees to speak out, the results are often incredible. There are countless stories about communities banding together to produce PPE to give these workers a fighting chance in their strife. This alone shows that this is not a time for silence. When we hopefully can get back to some sense of normalcy, hospitals that have discharged employees for speaking out should be taken to task and investigated for unfair labor practices. For now, it is important that healthcare workers are protected while they fight for all of our lives.

If we want to call these workers heroes, which they absolutely are, they should be treated like it.

at Cornell University

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