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A victory for respiratory therapists, others at UCI

By Pete Levine ·
A victory for respiratory therapists, others at UCI
Jenny Suarez (AFSCME Photo)

As a respiratory therapist serving the University of California, Irvine’s, Medical Center, Jenny Suarez, a member of AFSCME Local 3299, treats patients whose needs run the gamut: from premature infants whose under-developed lungs require special care to adults on life support to asthmatics learning how to use nebulizers.

For the past year, however, as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the world, Suarez and the other respiratory therapists (RTs) with whom she works have been face-to-face with a deadly respiratory virus that has put her at the forefront of the war against COVID-19.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges she has faced, Suarez hasn’t wavered in her dedication to her patients.

“It’s been really crazy,” Suarez says in an interview. “Sometimes we have two or three emergencies happening at a time. There has been so much death around us. We’re the ones removing the tube at the end of life. It’s been very challenging physically and emotionally.”

Recently, Suarez learned that some of the nurses at UCI were earning bonuses for working additional shifts and on the weekends – bonuses that were not being given to the RTs. Suarez knew that she and her co-workers deserved the same bonuses.

“The RTs have been working so hard. Some of them have been working every day,” says Suarez, a member action team (MAT) leader. “I have a colleague who worked 14 days in a row.”

Suarez knew she had a tool to fight through AFSCME. She organized her fellow RTs and began putting pressure on her department to find out why they were not receiving the same bonuses as the nurses.

As a result of their efforts, and the voice she has through her union, not only did the RTs win shift bonuses, but so did nearly a dozen other AFSCME-represented job categories at UCI.

Suarez credits the union difference with making real on-the-job improvements, beyond this most recent pay victory.

“If it wasn’t for us organizing the department and signing petitions together and putting pressure on management, and having AFSCME back us up, nothing would get done.”

Suarez and her fellow union members have fought recently to protect their pensions and to secure raises. They’ve also secured a break-time resolution, as well as other improvements, not to mention being part of 3299’s historic victories.

Having experienced the union difference, both before the pandemic and in the midst of it, Suarez has a message for all workers: “You don’t get things done just by going to management or HR, no matter how good the relationship is. It goes way beyond that. We as workers need to take a stand for what we deserve.”

The incredible tempo and volume of COVID-19 patients she and her fellow RTs have seen since last spring is but one challenge. The fear for her own safety, particularly at the outset of the pandemic, is another.

“In the beginning, it was very, very scary,” recalls Suarez, who was constantly worried about whether her mask and the sanitizing she’d performed was enough to keep her safe from the virus.

Even now, nearly a year into the pandemic, Suarez says, “You walk into a patient’s room and they’re coughing and there’s all this aerosolized air, and you’re thinking, ‘I hope this N95, and this shield and suit are protecting me.’”

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