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American Red Cross front line workers in Peoria advocate for better contracts, better health care

Peoria-based American Red Cross employers gathered Monday morning outside the American Red Cross headquarters to bring attention to the need for a fair contract that improves working conditions and benefits.
Jordan Mead
Peoria-based American Red Cross employers gathered Monday morning outside the American Red Cross headquarters to bring attention to the need for a fair contract that improves working conditions and benefits.

Frontline American Red Cross workers are taking action and pleading for a fair contract with American Red Cross management after recent attempts to reduce health care benefits, which would affect thousands of current employees. Red Cross employees across the country are speaking out this week to plea for protection of their benefits, safer working conditions, and better support when staffing levels are low.

After eight months of bargaining, they’re entering another round of bargaining this week.

Regional director for AFSCME Council 31 Carla Gillespie said during a news conference Monday morning in Peoria that it's time the Red Cross listened to its employees.

“For nearly two years throughout the pandemic, Red Cross frontline employees have put their lives at risk to keep vital services going. At times, they were denied adequate PPE, but they showed up day in and day out because they know how important this work is to our communities and to the country,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said systematic issues like severe understaffing, unsafe workplaces and poor treatment of employees are taking a toll on those devoted to serving on the frontlines.

Bobbie Terrell is a Red Cross collection specialist, and she’s also the AFSCME Local 2691 president.

Terrell said short staffing problems at the American Red Cross worsened because of COVID-19, and now, there is a national blood shortage yet an influx of donors wanting to help.

The problem, Terrell said, stems from management.

“Those of us on the front lines know that the problem is not a blood supply shortage, it’s a worker shortage, and that’s because Red Cross has treated its workers poorly, and that is a result, staff are leaving in droves. It is a crisis, but there is a way to address it,” Terrell said.

Terrell said staff morale is low because employees feel unheard and overlooked by management, and her goal in participating in Monday’s call to action is to raise awareness of the need for a fair contract.

Without a fair contract, Terrell said she worries Red Cross employees, donors and those in need of blood will be further at risk.

“At the end of the day, we care about the work we are doing. It’s not just a job; it’s a calling. We want to continue making the difference between life and death. We are all asking for the Red Cross to do the same. Negotiate a fair contract that boosts staffing levels and treat the everyday heroes who do this work with respect,” Terrell said.

Terrell said the entire negotiation process has been frustrating, and she worries what a slash in healthcare will mean for employees, those in need of blood, donors and the American Red Cross as an organization.

“We have several veteran staff that are only here staying on as employees because of the health care, so we are in danger of losing them if our health care is cut,” Terrell said. “When the staffing levels aren’t there, we can only do so many donors per staff on a drive or a fixed site. They have, for a while, cancelled donors because we don’t have the staff to accommodate them.”

A drop in the number of national employees would make a global. The American Red Cross provides 40% of the nation’s donated blood.

Terrell said Red Cross employees have especially had to deal with poor working conditions and staff shortages since the start of the pandemic, which hurts morale even more.

“There’s times where employees are exposed to COVID from donors, and they’re not protected. There was a slight period where they paid us to be off from exposure, but for the most part, employees have burned all their PTO and are just not taking a paycheck for the times that they’ve been off for exposure of contacted COVID through work,” Teller said.

West Central Illinois Labor Council vice president Jennifer Frank said during Monday morning’s conference that they stand alongside the frontline American Red Cross workers advocating for a new contract.

“It’s time to put a stop to the understaffing, the unsafe work conditions, the cuts in their health care. It's time to pay them a fair and livable wage. These are our frontline workers, and they deserve more,” Frank said.

In a statement, American Red Cross spokesman Brian Williamsen said the organization is negotiating in good faith to reach a resolution.

"We remain committed to providing our Red Cross employees across the country with competitive wages, benefits and working conditions, including health care. To this end, we have presented mutually beneficial proposals, and provided opportunities to increase wages and ensure quality affordable health care benefits. We continue to negotiate with the intent to reach a fair and amicable agreement," he said in a statement.

Williamsen said the Red Cross respects the legal rights of employees to engage in picketing, media outreach, and other activities as part of the bargaining process.

More calls for action will be happening this week throughout the United States in addition to Peoria, including conferences in Washington D.C., Michigan and California.

Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.