Thousands of health care and social workers across Alabama are filing unemployment claims after a wave of furloughs caused by the response to COVID-19, but most local hospitals say they aren’t laying off staff and are trying to minimize what impact the pandemic is having on their employees.
While much emphasis has been placed on the respiratory specialists, nurses and emergency physicians treating and testing patients with COVID-19 on the frontlines, other members of the medical community across the country have faced a different kind of crisis in their personal lives.
Most hospitals and clinics have stopped offering elective and non-emergency procedures, and if they didn’t make that choice on their own, several state governments have ordered a ban on those services to free up personal protective equipment, available bed space and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The elimination of those elective procedures has cost hospitals and clinics a lucrative source of income at a time when they’re already being strained responding to COVID-19. The bipartisan CARES Act Congress passed last month included $100 billion for U.S. hospitals, and the first round of funding released last week includes $449 million in grants to help Alabama hospitals recoup lost revenue.
“We cannot defeat this virus, protect the health of our citizens and restore our economy without our health care providers,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, said of the allocation at the time.
But like the many aspects of the federal government’s response to COVID-19’s impact on the nation’s economy, the pain has arrived but the relief has yet to. The nonprofit research and consulting firm Altarum recently reported the health care sector in the United States shed more than 43,000 jobs in March.
According to the Alabama Department of Labor, health care and social workers have filed more than 19,000 unemployment claims since March 14. Notably, the Huntsville Hospital System publicly acknowledged last week more than 2,000 of its employees have already seen their work hours reduced or been furloughed since Alabama’s COVID-19 outbreak began in mid-March.
In Mobile, the scale of the impact hasn’t been as clear.
There have been some anecdotal reports of local medical workers seeing their hours reduced, but none of the four local hospitals has been willing to share any specific numbers related to how the financial impact of COVID-19 is affecting staffing.
Lagniappe reached out to all of the local facilities over the past week, but only heard back from three.
Mike Burke, a spokesperson with the Ascension Group, which owns Providence Hospital, said the suspension of non-emergency procedures, and particularly a reduction in some surgical services that aren’t currently being offered, have meant there is less need for some of its associates in Mobile.
However, Burke said Providence doesn’t plan to lay anyone off and is trying to help where it can.
“We’re doing everything we can to assist associates who are currently unable to work due to decreased volumes or who were furloughed for similar work-related circumstances beyond their control. They are still being paid and receiving all associated benefits such as health insurance,” Burke said. “We have pledged to protect the pay of our associates during this time of disruption, including a commitment to full salary continuation, a variety of pay protection and associate support programs, and no layoffs.”
In addition to those pledges to keep paying employees, Burke said the hospital is also working to identify opportunities for associates who can’t work in their normal roles to assist in other hospital operations. He did not say what type of work that might be or whether they were related to COVID-19.
Burke said Providence is also offering daycare subsidies and reimbursements to staff members who are caring for COVID-19 patients and is also paying for hotel stays in cases where health care workers feel isolation is necessary to ensure safe social distancing from their family members at home.
At Springhill Medical Center (SMC), President and CEO Jeff St. Clair said much of the same. The hospital has seen a reduction “of a good number of employees” who would normally handle things like elective surgeries, mammograms, wound care, radiology and lab testing and other non-emergency care.
“However, we have been able to place many of these folks in a number of positions where they weren’t needed before, such as on some nursing units, hospital entrance screeners, triage areas and other posts,” St. Clair said in a statement to Lagniappe.
Even among the employees who are still allowed to work with their patients, some have chosen to stay home because of “child care issues” or because they are considered high risk for COVID-19 because of their age or an existing immuno-suppressed health condition, according to St. Clair.
“We are really concerned about our employees who are at home, and we are doing as much as we can to look out for them. We have been supplementing paid time off for folks with high-risk health situations or daycare issues,” he added. “We are NOT experiencing layoffs. Our employees are allowed to use their paid time off and, in some cases, their sick time if they are high risk.”
Dr. Brian Sumrall, who works in SMC’s COVID-19 unit, said despite a dozen employees testing positive for the disease since last month, the level of staffing has remained consistent and adequate to deal with the number of cases the hospital is seeing. There are typically anywhere between 15 to 30 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at SMC. As of Monday, there were 25, including 15 in intensive care.
Still, as is the case across the country, Sumrall said there were “plenty of open beds” at the hospital.
“There’s no elective surgeries being done. So, that empties those beds out, but for whatever reason, our volume has just been lower regardless,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because people are self-isolating and less are getting as sick or having other problems, but we’ve had lots of empty beds.”
Whatever the reason, Sumrall said that availability is good to have because it will allow the hospital to easily open up regular beds and ICU beds in multiple wards if the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continues to tick upwards. Sumrall said his staff has been seeing a noticeable increase in patients as Alabama heads for what’s projected to be the peak of its outbreak between April 18 and 22.
Lagniappe also reached out to Mobile Infirmary, where a spokesperson responded only to say, “We have not made any reductions in our workforce at this time.” A similar request to University Hospital and the USA Health System did not receive a response as of this publication’s press deadline.
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