As we’ve been warning for the past month, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Nevada hard. The novel coronavirus has affected everyone’s life, but some Nevadans have fallen into particularly hard times. As we continue to assess the COVID-19 fallout, we need to talk about some very difficult subjects that loom dangerously close to home.
So how much do we really value our health care workers?
At nearly every press conference, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) has gone out of his way to verbally praise the health care workers on the front lines of this public health crisis. Other elected officials have heaped additional verbal praise on these health care workers. Yet as we already know, the state continues to struggle in securing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical supplies for them.
It’s not really fair to blame the medical equipment shortage on state officials, considering that the federal government had traditionally rushed to state and local authorities’ aid, yet President Donald Trump continues to drag his feet in delivering such aid to state and local governments. While the White House finally approved Nevada’s request for a major disaster declaration (which unlocks additional federal aid) over the weekend, Trump still stands by (fail)son-in-law Jared Kushner’s denial of medical supplies to states in need.
While things like PPE supply are largely out of the state’s and municipal authorities’ control, many other policy decisions are. Let’s start with one county manager’s head-scratching decision to fight the very union that represents many of the health care workers and other public servants on the front lines of this pandemic.
How much does Clark County value these essential health care workers?
Last week, Clark County manager Yolanda King apparently acted unilaterally to suspend union contracts with a broad swath of county workers, including University Medical Center (UMC) staff, Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) staff, and county firefighters. County officials have since justified this move by claiming “that certain administrative functions require flexibility in staffing levels and assignments” that collective bargaining agreements allegedly won’t allow.
SEIU 1107, the union that represents workers at UMC, SNHD, and several other county agencies and departments, has fired back that union leaders “kept an open line of communication” and attempted to “work in partnership” before King suspended all union contracts. In a statement the union released, SEIU 1107 Executive Director Grace Vergara-Mectal retorted, “In this time of uncertainty, SEIU Local 1107 members have been resilient, patient and flexible, putting their own health – and that of their families – at risk, to ensure that essential public and healthcare services continue to run effectively and efficiently. Ms. King’s decision to strip away collective bargaining agreements for thousands of workers is dangerous and reactive.”
At least one Clark County Commissioner, Tick Segerblom (D), has expressed disapproval and outrage over King’s suspension of union contracts. Three other commissioners – Lawrence Weekly (D), Justin Jones (D), and Michael Naft (D) – are participating in a town hall with SEIU tonight to discuss this controversy. If Clark County Commissioners choose to do so (their next meeting is tomorrow), they can vote to override King’s suspension and restore the union contracts.
Still seeking shelter
Just before Yolanda King suspended Clark County’s union contracts, Nevada was already making international headlines, and those headlines were anything but flattering. For months, we’ve been following along with state and local authorities’ to cope with the growing affordable housing and homelessness crises. But now that COVID-19 is throwing even more Nevadans into economic hardship, Nevada’s overall lack of sufficient resources has exposed to the entire world the “dirty little secret” that our tourism boosters had previously sought to sweep under the rug.
When photos of people sleeping at Cashman Center’s parking lot started going viral on social media, United Nations Special Rapporteur for affordable housing Leilani Farha condemned this move and subsequently told the Nevada Current, “The city government should move expeditiously to get its homeless population into some kind of decent accommodations with four walls and a roof to be safe from contracting the virus and safe from spreading the virus. […] Forcing people to live on the streets in the face of a pandemic is a death sentence.”
Sisolak had already announced Nevada’s statewide moratorium on (most) residential and commercial evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 “stay at home” order, but state, Clark County, and Las Vegas city officials have since promised additional steps to move people off the Cashman Center parking lot and into more humane emergency shelter spaces. U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Jacky Rosen (D) have already announced $16 million in federal emergency housing funds, though the federal government will probably need to send more resources here and to state and local authorities across the nation just to catch up with the pre-coronavirus backlog of needed housing aid.
Deep cuts coming?
For months, we’ve examined Nevada’s seemingly never-ending budget woes. Now, this structural problem is coming into sharper relief as Sisolak asks all state agencies to prepare for as high as 14% budget cuts that could total as much as a $687 million cut to the 2019-21 biennial state budget. While the State of Nevada has a $401 million rainy day fund, that may not be enough to cover the rise in demand for social services and sharp drop in tax revenue that the state is now suffering.
And while the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates the state will receive $832 million from the CARES Act (or Congress’ “Phase Three” COVID-19 relief bill), much of that roughly $832 million will be specifically marked for COVID-19 relief efforts. Even if the federal CARES Act assistance and Nevada’s rainy day fund are enough to fend off drastic budget cuts this year, this crisis serves as another painful reminder that the state’s reliance on such narrow bands of tax revenue, such as sales tax and taxes targeting the gaming and tourism industry, isn’t really a sustainable way to run a state of over 3 million people in the 21st century.
If you’re in need of medical treatment, contact your primary health care provider first. If you fear you can’t afford treatment from a hospital or doctor’s office, check with the Southern Nevada Health District, Washoe County Health District, Carson City Health and Human Services, or the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services for resources in your area. For additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square.