‘Slap in the face’: American Red Cross workers describe exploitative work conditions
Nearly minimum wage pay, chronic understaffing and proposed healthcare cuts leave employees disgruntled workers at the American Red Cross charity are speaking out about what they say is low pay, chronic understaffing, poor working conditions throughout the pandemic and proposed cuts to their healthcare.
“The morale is at an all time low in my 23 years of history here,” said Darryl Ford, a collection technician at American Red Cross in Warner Robins, Georgia, and president of local union branch USW L254.
He described Red Cross’ response to the pandemic as business as usual, as the non-profit ramped up blood drives anywhere they were able to hold them, since many typical blood drive sites closed when the pandemic hit.
Ford also criticized the American Red Cross for doing little to nothing to clarify to the public that the blood donation drives were just testing for Covid-19 antibodies, not performing Covid-19 testing and providing inadequate PPE to workers.
Due to the low pay, scheduling problems and working conditions, Ford noted that American Red Cross in his region experienced workers leaving throughout the pandemic.
People are quitting,” added Ford. “It’s a slap in the face to the employees for management to say ‘we’re going to cut your healthcare and not pay you anything, while we’re going to work from home and be safe.’”
The Coalition of American Red Cross Unions, which represents about 4,900 workers from 11 international unions at American Red Cross across the US, is bargaining with the American Red Cross over the national addendum to the unions’ contracts, which expires on 31 March 2022.
The unions are pushing for wage increases, to preserve existing healthcare plans and for solutions to address chronic staffing shortages around the US.
The American Red Cross reported a revenue of more than $2.8bn in the 2020 fiscal year and the CEO of the non-profit received a salary of more than $700,000.
The majority of its revenue, approximately $1.73bn, went toward biomedical services, the part of the organization that collects blood donations and sells them to hospitals and healthcare providers. The American Red Cross provides about 40% of the nation’s blood supply.
Workers who collect and manage blood donations for the non-profit continued working throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as essential workers.
Alexis Zebrowski, a member of CWA Local 1118, worked as an aide specialist at the branch in Albany, New York for one year before quitting in November 2021 over the low pay around minimum wage, understaffing and working conditions through the pandemic.
As an aide specialist, she collected platelet, plasma and blood donations, conducted medical physicals of donors and took patient histories and helped run blood donation drives, which she noted were consistently understaffed and resulted in work shifts that went at least one hour or longer past her scheduled ten-hour shift without being able to take breaks.
“I can go work at any fast food restaurant and make more money,” said Zebrowski. “I was sick of the pay and all the constant bargaining and everything. The contracts still keep getting pushed out because they don’t want to give us a raise or even acknowledge anything we do for the company. It’s a slap in the face to work for the amount of money we are working for.”
She said the low pay and forced overtime led to worsening understaffing through the pandemic, with management rushing new hires through training and blaming existing staff when errors were made as a result.
“When we’re working, we’re expected to work at 100%, but we never have 100% in return,” added Zebrowski. “We’re always forced to come into work no matter what, sick or not, we were expected to be there. Otherwise, we’d be fearing for our job because we’d be too worried about being written up for attendance.”
Bobbie Terrell, a collections technician and member of AFSCME Council 31 at a branch in Peoria, Illinois, criticized American Red Cross for responding to chronic staffing shortages in her area by offering $1,500 sign on bonuses for new hires and paying them higher wages, while the only appreciation or benefit that longtime employees have received is pizza.
“The people they’ve hired since November are significantly making more money than the staff who have been here for years,” said Terrell. “That’s a major slap in the face to the current staff that have worked through this whole pandemic and not been offered anything but pizza.”
She also expressed frustration with American Red Cross’s proposal to cut the employees’ health insurance benefits, saying she is concerned that cutting healthcare will worsen staffing problems. She also criticized the organization for not paying workers to quarantine after being exposed to donors or coworkers who test positive for Covid-19.
“Staff are being sent home for 10 to 14 days at a time, unpaid,” added Terrell. “We’re on the frontlines doing the job for them of collecting these life-saving products and basically they’re telling us that it’s at our own risk.”
A spokesperson for American Red Cross claimed the non-profit plans to offer wage increases and retention bonuses to existing employees. But the spokesperson added that the group has not yet reached an agreement with unions on the terms and how the raises will be implemented, in addition to ongoing negotiations over healthcare.
They noted employees were provided with pay to quarantine in Spring 2020 and from 21 November 2020 to 2 April 2021.
“Across the country, many employers are facing staffing shortages as a result of pandemic employment trends and vaccination requirements, which have exacerbated the challenges to recruit and retain staff,” said the spokesperson. “Over the past few months, the Red Cross actively recruited to fill vacancies on our biomedical services teams and have made significant investments in additional resources and tools to seek out and attract candidates, including new hire bonuses.”
The spokesperson added: “Our intention is to reach a fair and amicable agreement with the Coalition of Red Cross Unions and all of our local unions.”
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