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SEIU Local 49, negotiating with Providence Milwaukie Hospital and others, wants more for workers fighting COVID-19.

COURTESY PHOTO - Jennifer Bryant, a phlebotomist at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, learned recently that a patient she'd taken blood from later tested positive for COVID-19.When Jennifer Bryant learned that a patient she'd worked on had tested positive for COVID-19, her mind replayed what she could recall of an encounter that happened three days before.

How close was her face to his as she drew blood? "Some patients you really have to handle a lot more," Bryant said. "I was trying to think, 'What was I doing? What did I touch?'"

The 48-year-old woman is one of the front-line workers that some people in Oregon bang pots to celebrate every night at 7. Her full-time job as a phlebotomist at Providence Milwaukie Hospital brings her into close contact with patients every day, while the rest of her days she spends like a lab assistant, taking various specimens and processing them for testing.

For all this technical work, Bryant receives a little more than $17 an hour. Her landlord wouldn't rent her an apartment until she provided proof of spousal support from her ex-husband, she said.

This situation is not acceptable to Local 49 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents not just Bryant but other phlebotomists and a variety of low-wage workers, including janitors, emergency room technicians and nursing assistants. As the union negotiates with management at hospitals around Oregon for pay raises, it is calling on hospitals them to boost sick-leave, healthcare and childcare benefits as well as wages, including a $5-per-hour hazard pay bonus.

"We represent 10,000 hospital and health care workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, but this is an industry-wide problem. The people who are being called heroes now have been chronically undervalued both in their wages, and their access to affordable health care," said Mike Morrison, a top official at Local 49.

Low wages and benefits set up tough choices for employees with flu-like symptoms that could potentially mean coronavirus, but don't have enough sick leave, he added.

"They're being put in these positions about, 'Am I going to go to work to pay my bills, or not?'"

The union has released research on the plight of hospital workers in Oregon, finding that:

• 70% of them are women, and 34% are people of color.

• More than 1,400 hospital workers are on SNAP, known as food stamps, and 2,600 are on the low-income Oregon Health Plan — often unable to afford the health care their employers provide.

• Employer-provided health care, when available, is often high-premium,and high in out-of-pocket costs, leading workers to avoid using the health care system

Morrison said that some hospitals have done a better job than others in establishing paid sick leave pools, but it's not enough. SEIU is in contract negotiations with several hospitals around the state, including at Providence Milwaukie, and hopes to shine a light on the situation its members. face.

"What we're looking for is that the folks who can fix, who can address these problems, do. Hospital workers who are vulnerable ... should have affordable health care and they should have wages that can allow them to care for their families themselves."

The call comes at a tough time, as hospitals have suffered major losses as a result of a statewide ban on non-urgent procedures that are a major revenue source in health care. Providence officials last week said their revenue was down 40 percent, according to the Medford Mail Tribune. Gov. Kate Brown last week announced that the ban will be lifted as of May 1 for providers who have sufficient protective equipment for workers.

Long dreamed of helping people

When Bryant was 12 years old, she was hit with high fevers, rashes, swollen joints and more. Eventually, she could not walk. She was tested for cancer, Lyme disease — "you name it," she says. They took bone marrow samples: "That was horrible."

Her condition turned out to be a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a rare condition in which the body attacks itself. She eventually recovered, but the compassion and attentive care she received left her with a desire to help other people as part of the health care system.

After high school and a stint in the army, a job entering data into computers, she focused on raising two children — her oldest is now 20.

Five years ago, she went back to school to study phlebotomy, and went to work for Providence Health & Services. She's glad she made the decision that she did, even now that she's facing increased risk to her health every day. "I am proud," she said. "I'm glad that I am helping in some way."

But it's come at a cost to her finances. In her computer job 22 years ago, she made more than she does now, "doing something that was just kind of, to me, not very important and in fact very easy," she said.

And there's another cost, too.

After her 8-hour shift, the single mother heads back to her two-bedroom apartment. There, before the pandemic, hugs from her son used to happen once in a while — though not too often, as you'd expect from a 15-year-old.

Now that's over. "He doesn't want to do any of that now," said Bryant, sounding despondent, adding that he is fearful of her making them dinner, even when she promises she washed her hands thoroughly. "My son is afraid to be around me."

Nick Budnick
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