The HEALS Act Puts Lives at Risk

Nurse holds sign "Pass the HEROES Act" outside U.S. Senate
NNU members hold a July, 2020 vigil in the U.S. capital, honoring the nurses who have died of COVID-19.

For public health and safety, nurses support the HEROES Act

The benefits keeping people and families in America afloat expired Friday. If Senate Republicans have their way, what comes next would involve these millions of benefit recipients making choices no one wants to make.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, cases continue to skyrocket. Hospitals are running out of ICU beds, and nurses and health care workers continue to get sick and die without safe protections. This past week, GOP members of the Senate introduced their version of a fourth COVID-19 stimulus package, known as the HEALS Act. Unlike the HEROES act, which passed the House of Representatives months ago, and which nurses support, this GOP bill would reduce unemployment benefits from $600 to $200, while letting eviction protections expire.

Why? Because Republican Senators want you to feel forced back to work, when there are no signs that it’s safe to go back to business as usual.

As nurses, we are the actual experts in healing, so we know the HEALS Act does not live up to its name. Our patients’ health is impacted by their ability to afford their homes, to buy food for their families, to pay for health care in a system where surviving a pandemic can break the bank, and by their overall stress level. A threat to their economic stability is a threat to their health.

Nurses protest outside The White House
NNU nurses at the White House in May, calling for protections that never came.

NNU nurses at the White House in May, calling for protections that never came.

Forcing our patients to go back to work — when the Trump administration has not done nearly enough to curb the spread of the virus — is also a threat to their health. Take Arizona mother Sheri Johnson, who couldn’t keep her family afloat on the unemployment benefits she received after losing her $50,000 a year job this spring, for example. Her daughter got a frontline waitressing job to help out — and contracted COVID-19. Now the family faces the potential loss of a loved one in their struggle to survive a lost job.

Is this what the government wants for people in this country: impossible choices? It’s certainly not what nurses want, especially because the HEALS Act, while not protecting everyday people, certainly protects corporations. It would bar most lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposure at work, allowing employers who cut corners on safety precautions to cause worker illnesses and deaths with impunity.

And that brings us to another danger of the HEALS act. While utterly failing to address the urgent needs of working people across the country, it also ignores the needs of nurses and health care workers on the front lines of COVID-19.

For more than six months, nurses and other health care workers have been risking our lives every single day, without the personal protective equipment (PPE) and workplace protocols that would prevent exposure to the virus. We have demanded Congress hold President Trump accountable for invoking the Defense Production Act to mass produce PPE, and we have called on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases to help keep us safe at work.

Both of these protections are in the HEROES Act, and yet Senate Republicans have failed to include any provisions in their bill that would protect nurses and our patients.

That means we keep losing nurses. On July 21, National Nurses United held a vigil in Washington, D.C. for the nurses who had died of COVID-19–164 at the time, but the number has gone up since then. One of the names they read was Janine Paiste-Ponder, RN, of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., a National Nurses United member who had died of COVID-19 just a few days earlier.

RNs at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center hold a photo of their colleague Janine Paiste-Ponder, RN.
RNs at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center hold a photo of their colleague Janine Paiste-Ponder, RN.

RNs at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center hold a photo of their colleague Janine Paiste-Ponder, RN.

“She was a loving wife, a loving mother,” said Paiste-Ponder’s colleague Toya Randle, RN who also tested positive, given that the nurses were working without optimal PPE. “All the nurses have been pleading and expressing their fears of what could happen … It falls on deaf ears.”

Nurses will be standing up again on Wednesday, August 5, holding actions at facilities across the country, demanding the optimal PPE and other protections. We have held 1,200 of these actions since April, and nurses have won some victories — but we still don’t have nearly the PPE or other protections we need on the front lines.

As workers dedicated to healing, registered nurses condemn the so-called “HEALS” Act for forcing people back to work, only for them to potentially be infected and end up in the care of nurses like Paiste-Ponder and Randle — who still don’t have optimal PPE and, therefore, face infection themselves. That cycle only makes it less and less likely that COVID-19 cases will stop surging. And to be clear, Senate Republicans will never accomplish their goal of strengthening the economy until cases are under control.

Nurses call on the Senate to get this right, pass the HEROES Act, and stop cutting corners on our patients and colleagues. We are already more than half a year into the pandemic, and flu season is around the corner. Lives hang in the balance, and there’s no time to lose.