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New England News

BHS Reverses Sick Time Policy During Pandemic

A sign with directions for various departments of a hospital stands at a crossroads
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
The main sign at Berkshire Medical Center's Pittsfield campus

A week after telling its staff that all illness-related absences – including COVID-19 – would come out of paid time off, Berkshire Health Systems has reversed the policy.

BHS Vice President of Human Resources Patrick Borek says that last week’s move – outlined in a March 31st memo obtained by WAMC – was itself a deviation from an existing norm.

“When the virus first came to the community back in early March, we had just a few cases – and there some exposures to those cases among our employees," Borek told WAMC.

Employees BHS determined faced medium to high risks of exposure were furloughed for two weeks.

“And we made the decision at that time to have salary continuation for those people, that they would not have to use their earned time banks for those illnesses, and if any of them got the COVID-19 illness that we would pay them through that illness too," said Borek. "We furloughed about 265 people in that process, paid them through a combination of worker’s comp benefits and salary.”

Borek says that two of those employees ultimately caught COVID-19, and were covered through their illness without using paid time off.

“By the end of March, about the 31st, we had implemented universal masking, other personal protective equipment protocols, and the risk of transmission of the virus by somebody who was exposed is extremely low universally," said Borek. "At the same time, the virus was very prevalent in the community – and it became impossible to know for sure whether an exposure was on the job or out in the community.”

That prompted BHS to change its policy again.

“Employees who would get an illness, including COVID, that’s not an on the job exposure, would be paid out of their earned time banks for that illness, that’s always been our policy," said Borek. "If someone got the flu or something more serious, there’s earned time and there’s a long-term illness bank for that. We at that point had not made a decision to treat the COVID illness differently. We had very few people who had it at that point.”

In an April 9th memo also obtained by WAMC, BHS reverted to its original COVID-19 policy.

“We have 11 employees at this point have tested positive for coronavirus out of our 4,200, and we made the decision this week that we needed to support our staff and take the additional step of paying salary continuation for any of our employees who have the COVID-19 illness regardless of whether we could trace it back to an on-the-job exposure or if it was acquired in the community,” said Borek.

Last week’s memo about using paid leave prompted another skirmish in a long-running standoff between the healthcare company and its staff.

“The nurses at Berkshire Medical Center did put a lot of pressure to get that reversed and the community really outpoured a ton of support through phone calls and some letters to the editor saying that you have to take care of your staff," said Mark Brodeur, a registered nurse at Berkshire Medical Center and a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the state’s largest nurses’ union. “If somebody doesn’t have enough earned time and they’re forced between staying home and paying their bills, especially during these hard times when there are so many people out of work and there’s already so much struggle in the world, that it would just really put people in a bad situation.”

While he acknowledged that labor unions have advocated for the kind of sick time policy BHS ultimately settled on, Borek says the company arrived at it on its own.

“We’d like to be in a situation where we could address issues before they arise, but with the current crisis in healthcare, sometimes we’re addressing them as they arise," he told WAMC. "And the few days between last week and this week was a time to look and see what the testing was, how many of our employees have tested positive for COVID, and to take a few days to make sure that committing to paying for any of these illnesses would be something that would be financially prudent at a time where this organization is undergoing a financial strain that it’s never seen before.”

Brodeur says BHS is painting a rosy picture of what risks staff face.

“I know I’ve talked to many, many staff who have had exposures without any sort of protection at all, and also staff who'd had fever and respiratory symptoms, and it’s very, very difficult to even get tested," said the nurse. "So, there are many staff who either were exposed directly or had the symptoms that were never even tested.”

While the hospital has moved to adopt a universal masking policy, nurses are still calling for every staffer to get an N95 mask – the much-sought after and highly regarded piece of P.P.E. that Borek says BHS simply can’t provide.

“We would prefer to have every employee with an N95 mask, there just isn’t sufficient supply due to the national shortage of N95 masks,” he told WAMC.

You can read the full memo here:

To All Employees,

It is especially true during a healthcare crisis that the health and well-being of our caregivers is of paramount importance.  We are therefore pleased to note that BHS staff are less likely to have COVID-19 than the general population. We believe this is because our employees, like healthcare employees generally, have a greater understanding of the importance of basic infection control practices (distancing, handwashing, etc.) than the general public and because of more extensive use of PPE and expanded protocols in the workplace.  This extensive use of PPE represents significant additional workload on our clinical staff, and your careful and consistent execution of the protocols has yielded great results:

  • The rate of positive tests among symptomatic patients in the community at large is about 20%, while the rate of positive tests for symptomatic BHS staff is about 6.3%.
  • Of 4,183 BHS employees, 11 have tested positive for the coronavirus (0.26%).
  • Of the 265 employees who were furloughed for quarantine (almost all before we implemented universal masking) 2 developed COVID-19 (0.75%). 

Despite this early success in protecting our staff, we recognize that working on the very front line of the response presents risk, even with proper use of PPE.  Given the exceptional efforts put forth every day, we prefer that our employees need not worry about the impact of COVID on their available paid time off banks.  Therefore, absences due to COVID-19 will be paid without debiting Earned Time and Long-Term Illness Banks, regardless of whether the illness can be traced to exposure at work.

Please note:

  • To be eligible for salary continuation, an employee must have a positive COVID-19 test and a statement from a physician confirming the COVID diagnosis.
  • Employee must notify Occupational Health as soon as the diagnosis is known.  For absences in excess of two weeks, Occupational Health will follow up with the employee and may require a physical examination and/or additional documentation.
  • Telephone clearance by Occupational Health is required prior to return to work.
  • This policy will be in effect until the Governor declares an end to the State of Emergency.

On behalf of the whole BHS leadership team, please accept our thanks for your professionalism, outstanding effort, and steadfast support of our patients and community during this difficult time.

Pat

Patrick M. Borek

Vice President, Human Resources

Berkshire Health Systems

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