As New York City public hospitals struggle to meet the demands of the coronavirus pandemic while still protecting their own employees, one group of healthcare professionals is trying to make the case that they would be safer working from home.
Social workers at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn are urging hospital administrators to let them work from home but say they are coming up against a company line that maintains every health care worker needs to do their part and show up in person, whether their job demands it or not.
Woodhull has been among the harder hit public hospitals in the city, which has seen more than 84,000 cases. The facility hit its capacity for treating coronavirus last Thursday, transferring 15 patients to Bellevue Medical Center in Manhattan, The New York Times reported.
The crush of patients has forced a massive reorganization of staff and marshaling of resources to keep up with the daily intake.
For social workers still doing their primary job, however, the work has already changed to protect the safety of their clients. The hospital's outpatient behavioral health teams started holding appointments by phone as early as March 13.
At that point, members of the social work department started pushing their direct supervisors to allow them to continue working from home.
The initial answer, according to at least two different social workers, was that the hospital was not considering that as an option.
When they pushed back, questioning the public health rationale behind this decision, "there was this refusal to discuss it in any reasoned way," said a social worker at Woodhull who spoke to Cheddar on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "It was just like 'This is the chain of command. It's not been approved. That's the way it is.'"
Several behavioral health clinicians who work in close proximity to each other have since tested positive for COVID-19, according to the social workers.
The topic of working from home comes up at most of the daily "town hall" webinars with Woodhull CEO Gregory Calliste. Both social workers described his responses as dismissive.
"They're saying they need all hands on deck, and that they may need to redeploy people, and that 'you guys have to be thinking about how you can step up rather than how you can hide,'" the social worker said. "All they're hearing is, 'You don't want to work.' We do want to work. We don't want to get sick."
In a statement, NYC Health + Hospitals disagreed with this characterization of Calliste's comments:
"Our CEOs are making these decisions based on the many variables affecting their hospitals. Depending on the facility, the department, and the role an employee plays, decisions are made by our hospital leaders on whether their critical work could be done remotely. At the end of the day, our frontline workforce are heroes saving lives every day."
The debate over whether social workers should be allowed to work from home extends beyond Woodhull Hospital and reflects a difficult distinction being made between essential and non-essential workers within and outside the healthcare system.
"Social workers play different roles in our system, from acting as front-line providers to navigating safe discharges and helping patients and families with important health care decisions," the health care system provided in a statement to Cheddar.
"We don't feel like we're being treated like heroes. We feel like we're being taken hostage. We feel like we're being made to choose whether or not we want to pick up a paycheck or live," the social worker said.
A pair of social workers at Manhattan's NYU Langone spoke with CNBC about a similar struggle to allow the hospital to let them work from home.
Attorneys for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents 1,000 social workers employed within the system, sent a letter to NYC Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz urging him to let these employees work from home.
"Despite that fact that all or virtually all of the work social workers perform can be done
remotely, only a handful of social workers – possibly limited to three social workers at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center clinic at Bellevue – are being permitted to work from Home," the March 30 letter said.
One of the attorneys for the union, Daniel R. Bright, said there had not been a response as of Friday.