The head of an employee union at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center said understaffing at the facility has taken a toll on nursing staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gayle Griffin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3, said nurses and aids have been forced to work overtime or face disciplinary action.
"Some people are calling in because for the simple fact they know that once they come into work, that they’re going to stay. They have no other life. You cannot plan anything outside of your eight hours at the Milwaukee VA because you don't know where you will end up," Griffin said.
Griffin was one of several AFGE union leaders from across the country calling on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be more transparent with employees about the pandemic's impact on their medical centers and to address chronic understaffing at facilities.
During the call with reporters, the union leaders said VA staff have been forced to work overtime throughout the pandemic and the long hours have impacted morale.
Dr. Michael Erdmann, chief of staff at the Milwaukee VA, said he recognizes the stress employees are facing.
"All of our employees have all stepped up and have, I think, been heroic in their efforts to care for our American heroes, our veterans," Erdmann said. "Has that taken a toll? Absolutely. And it's not just at work. It's all of the things that they've had to change in their personal lives that has made it very difficult for them to recover."
Milwaukee VA Deputy Director Jim McClain confirmed the Milwaukee VA has required overtime for staff in response to increased patient needs and the number of employees calling in sick.
"With individuals being out, whether it's COVID, taking care of a family member, certainly that's put stress on the system," McClain said. "However, we do considerably less mandatory overtime than private sector hospitals. In fact, probably 90 percent of the overtime that’s done is voluntary."
McClain said the Milwaukee VA also hired 40 additional nurses earlier this year and has contracted additional nurses for their ICU.
Griffin also voiced additional concerns about how the Milwaukee VA is testing staff for the virus and communicating the number of COVID-19 cases among staff and patients.
"(Employees) are usually just told to quarantine or if they have symptoms, just to monitor their symptoms. They leave, they come back. Or if they’re tested by employee health, some of them say their results come back after they’ve worked the whole day," Griffin said.
But Erdmann said the only time an employee would work while waiting for a test result is only if they were being routinely tested and did not have COVID-19 symptoms.
"We are following the same CDC guidelines and practicing it the way every other health care organization does," Erdmann said. "Is there a risk that someone could slip through that's asymptomatic and be infectious? Of course there's a risk. But we think we’re being fair to our employees, and we’re trying to allow them to work whenever they can."
Erdmann said the Milwaukee VA does do routine testing of employees working with high-risk patients, like those in long-term care units.