Thousands of nurses and other health care workers from across the country called on the federal government Tuesday to investigate what they called their employers' mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, their union said.
The workers, who are members of the American Federation of Teachers, filed 40 complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that hospitals were forcing them to work with defective equipment and to ration masks and gowns, the union said in a news release.
The hospitals are "placing workers at grave risk of infection and death from the coronavirus," the union said.
The complaints represent more than 20,000 workers from 40 union locals, union spokesman Andrew Crook said. The locals are in 10 states, the union said — Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
About 9,300 health care workers have been infected with the coronavirus, the union said, citing estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The complaints were filed amid widespread objections from nurses over their hospitals' responses to the pandemic. In New York last week, a nurses union filed multiple lawsuits accusing the state and two hospitals of "grossly inadequate and negligent protections." Earlier this month, HCA Healthcare nurses in Kentucky, Texas, Florida and other states protested the company's "lack of preparedness" and shortages of personal protective equipment.
The union said Tuesday that workers had been given defective equipment and were forced to ration masks and gowns. Cleaning staff at one hospital weren't told when a room had a patient with COVID-19 in it. In another case, hospital management refused to allow employees to wear protective masks.
"We deserve to be safe at work so we can do our job caring for patients, but the hospital failed me, my co-workers and the community," said a nurse, Nara Owens, who said she became sick with the disease while working in a unit that was meant for non-COVID-19 patients.
After she tested positive for the disease, she said, she was told by the hospital's human resources department to file for unemployment insurance.
In a statement to NBC News, Owen's employer, Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Warren, Ohio, called the safety of its patients and employees "a top priority." The statement said its workers have been properly trained and provided protective equipment, and it said the hospital continues to follow federal coronavirus guidelines.
OSHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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The union said the agency has no rules that force employers to protect workers from infectious diseases. It urged lawmakers to support a House bill that would force OSHA to require employers to implement emergency protections within one week.
The bill, the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, would also require the government to track and investigate coronavirus infections and ban retaliation against health care workers who report infection control problems.
The union's president, Randi Weingarten, said it is "immoral" that the agency is "refusing to issue and enforce guidelines" to protect health care workers and their patients.