HAMPTON, Va. - Hundreds of Department of Veterans Affairs union members from the American Federation of Government Employees’ National VA Council, the union representing over 265,000 VA workers joined together on Wednesday afternoon for the annual Workers Memorial Day.
Workers in cities across the country, including AFGE Local 2828, assembled to honor the lives of VA workers and veterans lost to COVID-19, fight for better workplace protections and demand fair contracts.
"This is not the first rally and it will not be the last. We're out here for life," said Registered Nurse at the Hampton VA Medical Center, Stephanie Vick.
Side-by-side, Hampton VA union members paid tribute to colleagues and veterans who have died over the past year. Many even showed up in solidarity during their lunch break.
"We're here to really memorialize all deaths due to workplace injuries, illnesses, accidents and so forth," said Sheila Elliott, President of AFGE Local 2328.
It's an annual rally, but the main focus this year was the number of VA employees killed by COVID-19 nationwide.
Elliott said, "here at our VA we had 267 cases of COVID-19, that we know of, and nationwide VA reports a number of 139 deaths."
She pointed to recent challenges that the Hampton VA Medical Center has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Right now we feel good about the PPE that we have but it wasn't always like this," she said. "A lot of staff ended up buying a lot of their own PPE just to come to work."
She said it's these reasons and more they stand, fighting for proper equipment and fair workplace conditions.
"All workers should have the opportunity to represent and be represented," Elliott said.
Nurses, Robin Smith and Stephanie Vick agreed and said their job is personal so in order to give veterans the best, they need the support too.
"We just have to work together we're not enemies we're in it together," Vick said.
According to AFGE NVAC, "this moment of VA worker solidarity comes just days after AFGE NVAC members joined United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough in launching the union’s first-ever virtual Health and Safety Conference, with the goal of giving VA workers nationwide the opportunity to voice their most pressing concerns, including—but not limited to—their need for reliable access to hot water, workplace violence and gun safety measures, stronger veteran suicide prevention programs, access to telework and telemedicine and adequate staffing. "
Other rallies and petition deliveries are taking place across the country in Milwaukee, Leavenworth, St. Louis, North Las Vegas, Chillicothe, Minneapolis, Hampton, Poplar Bluff, and Riverside—among others.