Healthcare workforce needs to be priority in 2021

Higher salaries, training, and support are needed

The most precious resource the US health-care system has in the struggle against COVID-19 isn’t some miracle drug. It’s the expertise of its health-care workers—and they are exhausted. The Atlantic, 11/13/20

THE HEALTHCARE HEROES who fell victim to the pandemic in 2020 leave us a legacy which we must embrace by placing our grief into action in their honor. Let us learn from the experiences of front-line healthcare workers, so many of them black and brown and women, who continue to work without proper protective equipment, fair wages, childcare support and pay when – oftentimes inevitably – they get sick.

At the end of the day, many of these front-line healthcare workers returned home to neighborhoods and communities suffering from the worst rates of illness in the state. Our inability to protect them endangered their health, their families, and their communities.

Listening to these workers by protecting, respecting, and paying our healthcare workforce needs to be a priority focus in 2021 and beyond. Healthcare workers voices need to be at the center of all of our reforms and efforts—they must have a voice on the job, especially when it is a matter of life and death.  All healthcare workers – no matter their job title or responsibilities – have a right to be paid a living wage. For far too many, pay inequities make covering the basic necessities like food, childcare, housing, utilities, and medicine a daily battle. There is simply no excuse for paying minimum wage or barely above minimum wage to those who risk their lives to care for our us

In addition, the health challenges, psychological stress, staffing levels, and long hours exacerbated by the pandemic have reinforced that hazard pay is a necessary tool if we are going to maintain, expand, and protect the healthcare workforce. President Biden’s proposed American Rescue plan highlights this critical need and calls on employers to compensate workers for putting themselves in harm’s way.  All healthcare employers, especially at Massachusetts’s world-class teaching hospitals, need to heed this call to support our healthcare heroes with pandemic pay.

We must also invest in the education, training, and advancement of the healthcare workforce. Far too often, workers are left without employer supports that allow them to achieve their career goals, enhance their professional skills, and increase quality healthcare services. We have seen this most recently with inconsistent infection control trainings as well as in the lack of career pathways allowing workers to advance to higher paid or skilled positions. By creating opportunities for workers to advance, we are addressing the needs of the industry, helping workers attain their career goals, expanding equity, and improving our healthcare delivery system.

We need to increase accountability and transparency of healthcare employers, especially home care agencies who operate with limited and fragmented oversight. Homecare services and jobs are growing and they are necessary for our health system to succeed. We need to ensure proper oversight and licensure of this industry and invest in the homecare worker, the unseen and often forgotten healthcare workforce.

Under President Biden’s sweeping $775 billion Care Plan to boost the caregiver economy, workers would see better pay and training, better benefits, and support. This is a gamechanger for the men and women who have borne the brunt of the crisis. But we must be certain the money goes where it is needed: to workers.

These policy changes don’t just happen at the federal level; our state can go further by passing a series of proposed bills that provide more funding for better pay, better access to protective equipment, stronger paid leave standards, and improved workplaces for staff and patients alike.

And we must also invest in our healthcare infrastructure. Our healthcare system of acute care hospitals, health centers, nursing homes and homecare providers needs additional support, oversight ,and reforms. The pandemic has exposed their vulnerabilities, their chronic need for better staffing levels, better wages, more investment in worker advancement, and more opportunities for workers’ voices in decision-making.

Meet the Author
We can do better in 2021 than we did in 2020, and with new leadership and the vaccine, we have that opportunity. What we can’t do is repeat the disaster that was 2020 for healthcare workers. We must finally protect, respect, and pay our heroes.

Tim Foley is the executive vice president of 1199SEIU, which represents 70,000 front line healthcare workers in Massachusetts including homecare workers, nursing home workers, nurses, and personal care attendants.