REASONS TO BE FEARFUL: Even as the NYC Health+Hospitals order that employees calling in sick provide a doctor's note has enraged some of them—like the workers outside Bellevue Hospital April 10—and at least one union leader, H+H CEO Mitchell Katz told a medical journal, 'People fear for their own lives, bringing home the illness to children, to parents, to spouses.'

A new policy requiring city hospital workers who call in sick to provide a doctor’s note was deemed a “disgrace” by the leader of the union representing Nurses Aides, Patient Care Associates and other front-line staff, who said, "You're not going to win this fight by threatening people."

NYC Health + Hospitals, which has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, issued a memo April 10 mandating that workers requesting sick leave provide either a doctor’s note or a positive coronavirus test result within five days.

'Extra Burden on Others'

“This change is required because every member of our staff is essential to this COVID response,” read the memo written by H+H Chief Medical Officer Machelle Allen and Vice President for Human Resources Yvette Villanueva. “Because all of you are critically needed in our facilities, we have to address this issue so that some of our staff is not bearing an extra burden for those who are staying home without approved leave.”

The memo also stated that staffers who did not provide documentation would not be paid for the missed time, and suggested that some of the workers taking off were not actually sick.

“In some places we have also identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection,” it stated.

Unlike the Police and Fire departments, H+H had not been releasing the number of staff who contracted the coronavirus. On April 16, two days after Mayor de Blasio was pressed on the issue, H+H announced that 924 of its workers had tested positive for the virus so far. That figure did not include employees who showed symptoms but weren’t tested.

Sick Rate Doubled

It also reported that 3,000 hospital workers were out sick between April 14 and 15. The hospital system has about 40,000 employees.

NYC H+H CEO Mitchell Katz told the Journal of the American Medical Association April 13 that the rate of staff calling in sick had doubled.

“Large numbers of people have been calling out sick, about twice the usual rate, but a lot of it is also very understandable fear,” he said. “People fear for their own lives, bringing home the illness to children, to parents, to spouses. So we’re definitely suffering from a large number of people missing in action.”

About 50 nurses protested the policy change outside of Jacobi Hospital, with one calling it "a slap in the face."

Carmen Charles, the president of District Council 37’s Local 420, said that the union was “aggressively” fighting against the policy change.

“Considering people are dying on the job, it’s a disgrace,” she said during a phone interview, noting that so far 10 of her members had died from COVID-19. The New York State Nurses Association has reported five deaths so far in the city hospital system.

'Won't Win by Threatening' 

Ms. Charles believed the policy change was an intimidation tactic. “We know what they’re doing: they’re trying to scare people into going to work,” she said. “But it’s not going to work. You’re not going to win this fight by threatening people.”

She added that her members were overwhelmed from being understaffed even before the pandemic began, and that workers had the right to be afraid in the face of the novel coronavirus. Hospital workers have faced shortages of gowns, masks and other supplies meant to protect them from contracting the virus. They have been asked to reuse N95 respirators for five days, four days longer than what was previously recommended. Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 taskforce April 13 mandated that medical facilities provide each staff member with at least one N95 mask per day.

“If they see their co-workers dying, shouldn’t they be afraid?” Ms. Charles asked.

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