Berkshire Health Systems retracts sick leave policy that roiled union

Berkshire Health Systems has backed away from a policy that would have forced employees who contracted COVID-19 to use their own earned time while out of work. The union representing nurses at Berkshire Medical Center applauded the reversal.

PITTSFIELD — In a reversal, Berkshire Health Systems has announced that staffers who become sickened by the coronavirus will not have to use earned time off while they recover.

In a memo sent to all employees Wednesday evening, the company said while very few staff have tested positive for the virus, those who do will not need to deplete their earned time — regardless of where they were infected.

"We recognize that working on the very front line of the response presents risk, even with proper use of [personal protective equipment]," said Patrick Borek, the company's vice president of human resources, in the email. "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."

The email rescinds a policy initially outlined in an April 1 memo announcing that employees who contracted COVID-19 would need to use their own earned time while they were out of work. The union responded with a letter of its own blasting the new policy and demanding the company provide protective masks for staffers on all units of the hospital.

BHS, which owns Berkshire Medical Center, then chided the union for trying to start a labor dispute amid a pandemic and universal mask shortages. Both outlined their positions in full page ads in The Eagle.Mark Brodeur, a Berkshire Medical Center nurse and union member with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, praised the new policy, which he said was likely the result of union pressure and widespread community outrage about what he said was a punitive notice from management.

He also said the new policy acts as an incentive for workers to stay home to stop the spread of disease.

"If you didn't have enough earned time, you would have to choose between not getting paid and supporting your family or going to work sick," he said. "It in general makes the community a lot safer."

In his April 1 memo, Borek also said that the pandemic had reached a "new stage," and that workers would no longer be furloughed for quarantine if exposed to the virus. Early on, more than 160 staff were furloughed after exposure to patients who later tested positive.

On Wednesday, Borek also explained that only 11 employees out of 4,183 have tested positive. The rate of positive tests among symptomatic staff is about 6.3 percent, while in the larger community, that rate is 20 percent.

Brodeur took some issue with these statistics, saying that criteria for testing staff and the public is still narrow enough that even symptomatic workers have not been able to get tested.

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.