NEW YORK, N.Y.—When the COVID-19 epidemic hit the city in March, Jazzmin Wilson, a phlebotomist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, volunteered to work on the floor with infected patients, drawing their blood for lab work and doing electrocardiograms.
“It was rough,” she says. “People were coding all over. You’d see a patient today, and the next day, they’d be gone.”
Wilson, who is 43 and lives in Yonkers with her husband and four children, has worked at NewYork-Presbyterian for five years. She normally sees 20 to 40 patients a day. But she began coming in at 5 a.m., five hours before her 10-6:30 shift began. The risk of infection was high.
“When you have to draw blood from someone who doesn’t have the best veins, you could spend 10 to 15 minutes with them,” she explains. “We couldn’t social distance, because we were drawing blood. How could you, when you have to have a needle in their arm?”
Personal protective equipment was in short supply during the early days of the epidemic. Staff had to rely on nurses having extra N95 masks to spare, Wilson says; otherwise, they’d have to use the same mask for as long as a week or wear two or three surgical masks at the same time. Seven workers on the ward got infected, including Wilson, who missed a month of work.
She doesn’t blame management for the shortage. “They didn’t have enough,” she says. But in her role as a delegate of SEIU1199 United Healthcare Workers East, she emailed the hospital’s director, asking for goggles, gowns that aren’t permeable, hats, booties, and at least one mask per day.
“That email was the game-changer. Now we have enough,” she says. Hospital officials agreed within three days, she adds, and have been cooperative since then: If a worker needs extra masks during a shift, “they’re not going to deny you.”
Organizers from 1199, she continues, met with workers to find out what their greatest needs were, and then negotiated everything from no layoffs to a waiver of alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations for hospital staff. The union also got members grants of up to $5,000 to help pay for child care, back rent for those on leave or who had household members lose jobs, and funerals of family members who died. Wilson helped less tech-savvy members apply.
She herself got hospital housing while she was working 13½-hour shifts, “so I wasn’t going home and infecting my whole house.”
“The union has come through for us in such a mighty way,” she says. “I’m thankful to be alive and to have had the opportunity to help during the pandemic.”