Health-care workers at Edward Hines VA Hospital, 5000 S. 5th Ave. in Maywood, stood in the cold during shift change on April 17 to protest working conditions.

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Health-care workers at five hospitals in the Chicago area, including Edward Hines VA Hospital, 5000 S. 5th Ave., stood in the cold during shift change on April 17 to protest working conditions at those facilities.

The coordinated action took place moments after state lawmakers, activists and health-care workers hosted a video press conference to highlight their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are asking for personal protective equipment (PPE), a wider availability of testing, and hazard pay.

Roughly a half-dozen Hines workers stood wearing masks outside the hospital’s gated entrance on Fifth and Roosevelt. Standing 6 feet apart, they held up signs to drivers passing by that read: “Health-care Heroes Need: PPE, Testing for Hazard Pay to Keep Us Alive.”

As of April 18, there have been 5,261 confirmed cases of COVID-19 diagnosed and treated at Veterans Affairs facilities across the country. Those facilities have had 315 COVID-19 inpatient deaths, according to publicly available data provided by the Department of Veteran Affairs. At Hines, there have been 45 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three inpatient deaths.

Greg Kelley, president of the SEIU Healthcare Illinois union, has said in the past that hospital workers should at least be paid time and a half while working during the pandemic and should also be eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave.

“It’s important that we hear from them, protect them and give them what they need, as they all take care of us,” Kelley said during the April 18 video conference.

The volume of COVID-19 patients along with inadequate safety conditions at the hospital has even non-frontline employees at Hines concerned about coming into work when they can telework from home instead.

Earlier this month, a range of Hines employees — including social workers, dietitians and psychiatrists — spoke out when James Doelling, Hines’ new director, sent them an email asking them to return to work “as the center prepared for a surge of veterans in needs of services,” according to an April 5 Chicago Sun-Times report.

“I’m concerned as a clinical provider that we’re going to be risking the lives of veterans and employees as they create this COVID-19 petri dish at the hospital for no reason,” one social worker, who requested anonymity, told the Sun-Times.

Germaine Clarno, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 781, told the Sun-Times that Doelling’s order “is bringing employees in ‘unnecessarily’ and putting everyone at the hospital at risk.”

“They’re being told to come into Hines, sit all together in one office all day, and they can’t even go see the patients in the wards because of precautionary measures,” Clarno told the Sun-Times.

Doelling did not respond to the Sun-Times’ requests for comment and could not be reached by phone on April 18.

A Moveon.org petition urging Doelling not to ban telework at Hines had garnered 816 signatures by April 18.

“If you do not allow telework, veterans, staff, and their families will be negatively impacted,” the petition states. “Other VA’s have implemented telework and California is a clear demonstration of how this will backfire. You already have the evidence of this.”

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