INTERVIEW | Caring for Healthcare Workers during COVID-19 with Nursing Campaign Director Sun Strait

INTERVIEW | Caring for Healthcare Workers during COVID-19 with Nursing Campaign Director Sun Strait

This week I interviewed Sun Strait (they/them), the Nursing Campaign Director at SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania on how the union is caring and keeping healthcare workers safe during the pandemic. As a lifelong advocate and activist, Sun Strait has spent the last 10 years in the labor movement, working to better the lives and workplaces of healthcare workers i.e. healthcare researchers, LVN, home care around the country.  Motivated by the union social workers who help them in foster care, they put themselves through undergraduate and graduate school and pursued a career in labor. 

“I realized the best way I knew how to support social workers and other healthcare workers was to make sure that they had better wages and working conditions.”

Strait has worked in various union positions, from a unionized healthcare worker to an Internal Healthcare Director, but their passion lies in assisting nursing home workers. Coincidentally, they began the Nursing Home Campaign Director position as COVID-19 increased, so now more than ever, they are working to ensure the safety of healthcare workers around Pennsylvania.

What does your role as a Nursing Home Campaign Director entail?

My role is one that supports the department on all campaigns and strategy and decision making in the Long-Term Care Division. I help organizers figure out a strategy for smaller campaigns to fight for improvements in issues that affect nursing home workers in individual nursing homes.  I also do the same on a macro-level supporting the President, Vice President and Deputy Director of the Division.

Do you or will you interact with the healthcare workers once COVID subsides and in what capacity?

Since our Local is the major Local that supports healthcare workers in the entire state, we represent healthcare workers in hospitals, home care workers, state healthcare workers, and nursing home workers. So, I’ve interacted with all of them but mostly with nursing home workers since that’s my area. I will be bargaining their contracts (collective bargaining agreements) and also supporting field organizers in campaigns at their worksites.

How has COVID-19 changed the way healthcare unions operate and care for healthcare workers or workers? 

There’s been a significant change in the way we operate and connect with members. Most union organizing happens in person, in face-to-face conversations. COVID-19 has changed that and moved most of our union organizing efforts to telephone conversations and zoom meetings. One thing I appreciate about SEIU is that it’s considered an organizing union. Meaning, they focus on empowering workers to find their voice on the job and take action. That’s different from a representational union, which is one that solely focuses on helping people that have contractual violation issues. 

 How are they different and what does this mean for healthcare workers, especially during COVID-19

The difference between the two to me is huge and in favor of organizing. Empowering the natural leaders at worksites and then supporting them as they move to empower others is beautiful to see and what it takes to move the labor movement forward. Normally union members depend on their organizers to do the work for them, but with COVID-19, it’s meant that the workers have had to figure out how to do a lot of things themselves with virtual support from organizers. 

What are you and your team doing to keep healthcare workers you work with safe during the pandemic? 

None of the nursing home employers were providing appropriate PPE – the stories in the news about nursing home workers wearing trash bags came from my state! So, what we’ve done is to order a bunch of different PPE and distribute it throughout the state, and advocate for hazard pay.  We also have been pushing the employers to abide by the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act by allowing employees to use PTO instead of sick pay to care for themselves and/or their families, and advocating at the state and federal level for additional funding for nursing homes, which we got.

What are some pandemic-related concerns or questions healthcare workers have come to you with and how is the union addressing them? 

We’ve had so many questions and most of the questions pertain to pay and safety: 

  • When are we getting hazard pay?
  • Why won’t my employer give us hazard pay?
  • Why won’t they comply with the FFCRA?
  • How are they spending the funding they’ve gotten—why haven’t we gotten appropriate or additional PPE?

The added stress of job security and having to care for their personal well-being while caring for patients makes their work environment challenging. We are working with hospital administrators to address the concerns above and develop proper safety measures and for all workers. Since it’s difficult to interact face to face, we’re utilizing our call centers to help answer many of their questions, plus working in partnerships with the community. 

What do you say to healthcare workers afraid of losing their jobs or benefits during this time 

Well, unfortunately, because nursing homes have been hot spots for COVID, there’s been a tension between residents passing away which results in less people to care for, resulting in less need for staff, and that other worker getting sick means the employers need all the staff they can get. Different employers handle that differently, with some erring on the side of caution and some making terrible decisions for their staff and the residents. We have implemented a process of helping folks file for unemployment and for workers’ compensation, which has helped some.

Are you (union) implementing any self-care or initiatives during this time?

Yes, during a fairly large meeting of almost 100 people we put together a training session around self-care. It’s one program I’ve implemented since taking the position. It’s in the beginning stage so we have to wait to see how effective it is. Still, implementing self-care training sessions is important for the wellbeing of healthcare workers. We also piloted some trauma support training and resources but had difficulty recruiting people to attend. Unfortunately, many healthcare workers have what I’ll call the martyrdom complex. They’re likely to put the safety of others before themselves, even though they know that they need to put their oxygen mask on first.

How can we help healthcare workers during this time?

They don’t need to be called heroes or essential workers or have people sing or clap for them as has been happening across the country. What they need is more people paying attention to where federal and state funding, making sure it goes to the right places.  We do that by getting the right people in the office at both the state and federal levels—people who will understand that we need to prioritize healthcare work and workers in their budgets and set aside enough money accordingly.

Is there anything you’d like the readers to know?

COVID has affected black & brown communities disproportionately and called to light the inequity in healthcare. Healthcare workers of color and healthcare workers, in general, are working to care for patients and research ways to reduce this. It’s also something we’ve taken on as a union to talk about broadly in the media & to legislators at the state & federal level. 

Interested in knowing more or have questions for Nurse Campaign Director, Sun Strait? Leave a comment below.


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About the author

Joycelyn Ghansah

Joycelyn Ghansah is a former Healthcare Organizer with a background public health, include reproductive and sexual health. When she's not freelance writing, she's transcribing interviews and researching ways to strengthen healthcare labor laws.

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