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1199SEIU Dental Assistants Forced to Work in COVID-19 Unit Fight Back and Win

May 27, 2020

By Marc Bussanich

Bronx, NY – Nine dental assistants in the Bronx who balked after being thrust into St. Barnabas Hospital’s emergency COVID-19 unit have won their jobs back this week.

“We didn’t have the training for these types of scenarios but we were placed into an environment as if we were a certified nursing assistant or registered nurse.” — Dental Assistant Daniel Recuero

According to 1199SEIU, the dental assistants were told they were being transferred from Union Community Health Center, then put on a call list and told to report to St. Barnabas’ Human Resources department. 

The nine dental assistants — all members of 1199SEIU — were terminated after they protested their working conditions.

When they reported for work, they weren’t assigned to work in the hospital’s dental department. Instead, their work assignments ranged from bathing and recording the temperatures of Covid-19 patients, to staffing Covid emergency departments and bagging the bodies of deceased patients. 

One of the dental assistants, Daniel Recuero, organized and led the other dental assistants to get their jobs back. He told LaborPress about his experience of having to work under circumstances where he put himself at risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

“There were days when I was potentially exposing myself to the virus either by checking the vitals of a patient or feeding a patient who couldn’t feed themselves. We didn’t have the training for these types of scenarios but we were placed into an environment as if we were a certified nursing assistant [CNA] or registered nurse [RN],” said Recuero. 

He then described a very harrowing experience. 

“One day I was leaving a patient’s room after taking vitals, and a CNA and another nurse asked me for help, and when I entered the other room there was a dead body, I had to help them bag a dead body. In the moment you just react and help out, but it’s very distressing looking back at that experience,” Recuero said. 

He was also distressed by the fact that he was in daily contact with COVID-19 patients at St. Barnabas and the potential impact that could have on his family. 

“I have three kids and I basically had to shower each time before I could even say hello to them because I didn’t know if I was a carrier. In the hospital, I don’t know what I was exposed to or if I exposed anybody,” noted Recuero. 

He also described how and he and his fellow dental assistants, despite having no formal training to treat COVID-19 patients, were subjected to criticism. That’s what led them ultimately to take action. 

“One day, we all got together after work and we just started talking to each other about what was happening with each other and I just decided that enough was enough, that something had to be done,” Recuero said.

“We protested [outside the hospital] because the abuse can’t be tolerated. During this pandemic, people have been sacrificing so much—doctors, nurses, everybody. We understood it as well, and we were willing to help as much as we could but facing all of this discrimination and facing all this verbal abuse, enough was enough, we had to take a stand.” 

The rally by the dental assistants seems to have been an effective response. As of this writing, Recuero and the other eight dental assistants have been reinstated and they are expected to receive back pay from the day of their termination on Friday, May 8. 

May 27, 2020

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