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First responders, healthcare workers say relief bill doesn’t do enough

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and other frontline workers treating patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic said the relief bill passed this week by the Wisconsin State Legislature doesn't go nearly far enough to protect them.

On a pair of virtual press events Wednesday, SEIU Healthcare hosted a forum for some of its workers around the state while another call featured leaders of the Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin EMS Association, the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, and Professional Fire Fighters of Madison.

Timothy Bantes, President of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, said first responders are relying on aid to come from the state and federal governments because there isn't much many of the state's cash-strapped cities and villages can do.

"We need to be ready to handle this and, at the local level, I'm not trying to speak out of turn or use a bad phrase, but there's no meat on the bone anymore," Bantes said. "There are no budget reserves."

Healthcare workers said they're concerned that their employers are changing guidelines for how often they should reuse protective equipment and feat the changes are based on availability instead of best practices. Ryann Streicher, a labor delivery nurse at a Madison hospital, said lawmakers should have included funds to restock hospitals with personal protective equipment, or PPE.

"Every day, we lack the protection that we need to keep us safe at our jobs," Streicher said. "We're frustrated that we're being asked to risk our health and that of our families every day that we go to work."

Justin Byers, a paramedic in La Crosse, said his biggest concern is what would happen if he or any of his colleagues contracted the novel coronavirus.

"If I get sick with COVID-19, I want to make sure I can financially support my family," Byers said. "Right now, if we get sick, we have to take time out of our PTO but when we take PTO, we don't get full pay."

State Rep. Robyn Vining (D - Wauwatosa) was on the healthcare workers' call. Vining's office shared a letter signed by 37 state lawmakers calling on legislative leaders to ensure the next relief legislation package supplies PPE, guarantees fully-paid sick leave, provides hazard pay, and provides full healthcare coverage for frontline workers.

"It has two parts right? There's the 'what' you're gonna do and then the 'how' you're gonna do it," Vining said. "So these are the four parts of what we want to do and now we have to figure out how we can do it."

For frontline workers across Wisconsin, that 'how' cannot come soon enough.

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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