Local 888 sought to curb, then reveal COVID-19 outbreak in Holyoke

MISMANAGED FOR YEARS: Local 888 members and leaders kept trying to curb understaffing and unfair practices right up to the point when COVID-19 tragedy struck.

MISMANAGED FOR YEARS: Local 888 members and leaders kept trying to curb understaffing and unfair practices at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home right up to the point when COVID-19 tragedy struck.

Local 888 members at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tried to get management to provide more personal protective gear in the run-up to the COVID-19 disaster that has led to the death of many veterans there. But they did not get the gear.

At every step of the way, Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, and his managers failed to get the nursing facility ready for the coronavirus pandemic. They failed to protect their workers and the vets. In fact, management retaliated against anyone who questioned their orders regarding health and safety.

But Local 888 members only wanted to keep the veterans and themselves safe from the scourge of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

Now, it’s not only the friends and family of the deceased veterans who are suffering from the awful tragedy. It’s the workers — who cared deeply about serving those veterans and often viewed them as family.

And it’s become clear that understaffing and management’s authoritarian style left the Soldiers’ Home ill-equipped to handle the emergency that left 25 veterans dead, with 18 of those testing positive for the coronavirus (as of April 6). In addition, 31 Soldiers’ Home staffers and another 59 veterans have tested positive.

Finally, on March 30, the state removed Walsh from his post.

The correct reporting of deaths and the crisis intervention by the state happened, because Local 888 President Brenda Rodrigues reached Francisco Urena, state secretary for veterans services and Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts secretary of health and human services on Sat., March 28.

Rodrigues informed Secretary Sudders that, regardless of what she was being told, Local 888 members were seeing many coronavirus-related deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Now, all workers and residents are apparently being tested for the coronavirus. And amidst extensive media coverage, Gov. Charlie Baker has appointed an ex-federal prosecutor to oversee an independent state investigation into the COVID-19 tragedy at the Soldiers’ Home.

Yet it was actually months before the pandemic exploded at the Holyoke facility that Local 888 members had pressured management to correct problems. These included understaffing and harsh workplace conditions, such as forced overtime and unfair disciplinary actions. In short, an authoritarian management culture.

In fact, Local 888 had buttons printed and ready to go for a renewed campaign that called for maintaining the care of the state’s veterans while improving dignity and respect for workers. But because of concerns about maintaining social distance as the coronavirus threat increased, chapter leaders canceled a members meeting set for March 11.

Indeed, the failure to properly staff, which entailed forced overtime, meant the Soldiers’ Home was not prepared for a crisis. This forced overtime could mean a double shift at the elderly-care facility.

Further, as the Holyoke crisis deepened, Local 888 was lodging complaints with management for weeks.

On March 17, Local 888 sent a letter raising concerns about the COVID-19 crisis — and demanding that management disclose its plan for providing needed safety equipment and complying with U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendations. Repeated calls to management for its plans went unheeded, until Walsh was put on administrative leave.

As the crisis grew, Soldiers’ Home staff were berated over the intercom for calling in sick, said Erin Saykin, a Holyoke Local 888 steward. “Management didn’t give workers the proper N95 masks when we needed them,” she added. “The situation was scary. Now, I just hope we can once again do our best for the veterans,” said Saykin, who is home sick, presumably with the coronavirus.

Rodrigues, the Local 888 president, said one nursing assistant who pushed back against management was hit with a disciplinary letter — for being “disruptive” and inciting “alarm” amongst employees. “He was just asking for the basic, standard safety equipment that is needed in this kind of situation,” she said.

The union protected the worker from this apparent retaliatory action by management. This attempt by management to discipline the worker for wearing the correct personal protective gear came only one day after Local 888 had officially demanded a COVID-19 plan.

Members’ demands for proper gear included a good supply of and ready access to the N95 mask, the standard for dealing with the fast-spreading COVID-19.

Rodrigues said she was shocked to find out about the worsening situation at the Soldiers’ Home during the week before Walsh’s removal. She said management’s response to the outbreak was “simply unbelievable.”

“They’ve handled the whole situation terribly,” added Saykin.

As the crisis unfolded that last week before Walsh’s removal, management brought in a refrigerated storage truck for the deceased. Public accusations are flying now. These include charges that Soldiers’ Home management kept the mounting deaths a secret for half a week.

The chapter vice president for the Soldiers’ Home, Joe Ramirez, is home sick with a fever, tremendous body aches and a “dry scratchy throat.” He has been tested for the coronavirus, but not yet received the results.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” he said. “It’s 20 times worse even than when I had the flu.” He was severely ill for the week leading up to Walsh’s dismissal and beyond.

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