Essential workers in FL hope for relief in new year

In 2021, the labor market improved; minimum wage rose; infrastructure bill passed; gambling stalled; climate got help but not enough

By: - January 1, 2022 7:00 am

Nearly 1,000 advanced practice nurses worked as volunteers to roll out COVID vaccines for Florida seniors in January 2021. Credit: Florida Association of Nurse Anesthetists, January 2021

While Americans grew more divided over politics in 2021, frontline essential workers toiled on to hold the nation together.

Lauded as heroes but often not treated as such, nurses, first responders, teachers, farm workers, commercial drivers, and other essential workers shouldered the load to keep goods, food, health care, and education available through both the pandemic and tense political times.

The Phoenix has stayed in touch with Florida nurses and other acute-care workers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting as they worked countless hours of overtime, hundreds volunteered to administer vaccines and COVID tests at mass sites, and as many suffered from burnout, grief, and harassment.

Thousands of nurses around the nation contracted the disease themselves, especially when personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce, and hundreds died of it, according to the National Nurses United, a labor union. Some felt forced to leave the profession for their family’s sake or their own.

Deborah Montgomery, a registered nurse in Palm Beach County, gets her COVID vaccination. Credit: 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

Deborah Montgomery, a registered nurse in Palm Beach County since 2017, told the Phoenix this week that she and other nurses long for better days in 2022.

“For two years we’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic without proper support, protection, or pay,” said Montgomery, a member of 1199SEIU, Florida’s largest union of health-care workers. “Staffing shortages and other pressures have always been an issue in our health-care system, but the pandemic has deeply exposed these weaknesses.”

Montgomery said people and institutions must learn lessons from the pandemic, including the value and cost of maintaining robust health-care systems, the necessity for more workers to be trained in the field, and the public’s obligation to do its part to control infectious diseases.

“We need employers to protect us, pay us, and respect us,” Montgomery said.

“We need the governor and state government to stop playing partisan political games with this pandemic. In the hospitals, we’re trying to save lives, while so many of them are just chasing votes and soundbites.  And where are they and what are they doing during this huge new surge of COVID? We’ve seen nothing.”

As it stands now, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 58,013 new COVID-19 cases in Florida, based on Dec. 30 figures. That’s the highest number of all states and the District of Columbia, with one exception — New York. That state includes 62,105 new cases — a combination of New York City and New York state figures. Overall, the big numbers are attributed in part to the new and highly transmissible omicron variant.

Surges in infections typically are followed days and weeks later by a surge in hospitalizations and deaths, although epidemiologists suspect omicron may prove less lethal than previous strains.

Montgomery urged all eligible people to make full use of COVID vaccinations and boosters, for their own health, protection of others, and safety of the health-care workers, she said, “are barely hanging on.”

“We need the public to take this seriously, too. It’s so smart and easy to get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, and take the simplest of precautions to protect everyone you love,” she said. “Willingly misinformed behavior isn’t some noble show of freedom. It’s selfish, deadly, and it’s crashing our health system.”

Read more about nurses during the pandemic:

Nurses with burnout: ‘Many … have gotten sick, some have died, and all of us are exhausted’ – Florida Phoenix

‘I want to be protected’: Nurses worried about dangerous work conditions, COVID mutations

In positive news for workers, Florida implemented the first phase of a constitutionally mandated increase in the minimum wage, now at $10 an hour, up from just $8.65. Also, job openings grew and in-demand workers made headway in wages and benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

FL will see its first phase of minimum wage boost

COVID was front and center in Florida education in 2021, with discord over the wearing of face masks at school reaching fever pitch as the fall term began. Broward and Alachua county school districts were the first to defy the governor’s prohibition against mask mandates for students and employees.

Infection rates soared in the schools and their communities, and local health departments were unable to keep up with testing and contact tracing. Thousands of students were forced out of school into quarantine to tamp down the surge, and entire schools temporarily closed soon after the term began.

Other defiant districts that temporarily imposed mask mandates were Brevard, Duval, Leon, Orange, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach. All were sanctioned by state education authorities. They have since rescinded their masking mandates, citing lower COVID infection rates.

FL education officials appear to defy feds’ cease and desist complaint regarding state funds – Florida Phoenix

School closures reported in five FL counties; districts ‘drowning’ in COVID – Florida Phoenix

Following federal scrutiny, FL education officials returned $878,000 to certain local school boards

Climate change continued to prove its existence by way of historic hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, and sea-level rise. Chronic flooding in coastal Florida cities was unmistakable evidence, but the peninsular state came through 2021 relatively unscathed by hurricanes — unlike states from Louisiana to New England bashed by the unusual ferocity and tenacity of Hurricane Ida in September.

A Sunrise Movement climate activist demonstrates at a town hall meeting. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The U.N.-sanctioned global summit on climate change held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, achieved record pledges from world leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but climate scientists and activists agree the efforts are not yet enough to fend off catastrophic damage.

President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law, passed in Congress in mid-December, includes unprecedented funding for projects to address climate change, but more united and widespread effort to shut down pollutants is urgently required, U.S. and international scientists say. The infrastructure package includes approximately $20 billion for upgrades in Florida, including roads, bridges, airports, internet access, climate-change resiliency projects, and electric-vehicle infrastructure.

Obama at world climate conference: We are falling short – Florida Phoenix

As Biden promotes climate action to world leaders, support in Congress still divided – Florida Phoenix

Retiring Florida parks director Eric Draper ranks climate change as a major threat – Florida Phoenix

Avoiding words ‘climate change,’ DeSantis says global-warming concerns involve ‘left-wing stuff’ – Florida Phoenix

Dems, Chamber of Commerce and engineers celebrate historic investment in infrastructure and jobs – Florida Phoenix

Of more interest to many in 2021 than cataclysmic climate change was gambling.

Photo illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

In Florida, the gambling industry vastly expanded, temporarily at least, thanks to a new compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe. Among other things, it legalized popular sports betting statewide for the first time, with the tribe holding exclusive control of the lucrative market. Legal challenges ensued, constitutional amendment drives to unravel the compact were launched, and the tribe’s sports-betting operation was short-lived, blocked after just three weeks by a federal judge’s ruling in November. Appeals continue.

No Casinos and anti-gambling businesses join fight to keep gambling compact locked down – Florida Phoenix

Massive gambling compact approved; expansion of gambling poised to change FL landscape – Florida Phoenix

State and federal courts were busy with Florida disputes in 2021, and Florida’s governor was busy placing conservative judges on courts in his jurisdiction, to good effect for him.

FL Supreme Court continues pattern of overturning or sidestepping its precedents – Florida Phoenix

Gov. DeSantis reshaped Florida’s appeals courts; It seems to be working out for him – Florida Phoenix

Breast cancer afflicted two of Florida’s most prominent political women in 2021: First Lady Casey DeSantis and state Sen. Tina Polsky, a Palm Beach County Democrat. Polsky’s illness became national news when Gov. DeSantis’ controversial nominee for state surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, refused to don a face mask in Sen. Polsky’s office even after she asked him to do so and informed him she was being treated for cancer.

FL’s first lady is diagnosed with breast cancer, Gov. DeSantis announces – Florida Phoenix

Dems demand DeSantis pull surgeon general nominee over refusal to wear mask – Florida Phoenix

Tragedy struck in Miami-Dade County on June 24, when a 12-story condominium in Surfside collapsed, killing 98 people. The collapse was attributed to water penetration and corrosion of reinforcing steel in the ground floor — problems that were identified in 2018 but were left unaddressed.

An Israeli Defense Force team assisted with search and rescue at the site of the Surfside condo collapse. Credit: IDF

In July, the approach of Tropical Storm Elsa forced search and recovery efforts to stop, and the remains of the condo were brought down with explosive charges. Afterward, the search continued and more bodies and belongings were recovered.

Search-and-rescue work continues in Surfside; officials vow to get to bottom of condo collapse – Florida Phoenix

Hurricane Elsa forces officials’ hand: Explosive charge will bring down still-standing remnant of Surfside condo – Florida Phoenix

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to let the Legislature take the gloves off when it comes to restrictions on abortion rights. During oral arguments on Dec. 1 over Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks gestation, members of the new conservative majority were openly sympathetic to the state’s arguments. This from a court that had already let stand the Texas law that lets private citizens sue people and organizations that help women obtain pregnancy terminations after about the sixth week of gestation. Roe v. Wade is clearly in danger.

In Florida, Republican House member Webster Barnaby has filed a bill mimicking the Texas law, but Senate President Wilton Simpson is on record opposing that enforcement mechanism. GOP state Rep. Erin Grall is working up antiabortion legislation in that chamber, but as of early November she had no details to report. “Right now, we’re just doing our research and looking at what’s happening around the country and trying to have a good understanding of what the Supreme Court is going to be considering,” she said.

So far, Texas-style abortion bill in FL seems headed nowhere in the Legislature – Florida Phoenix

U.S. Supreme Court considers new limits on abortions in Mississippi case – Florida Phoenix

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.