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BHS nurses bristle at changes to earned sick time policy

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PITTSFIELD — In a signal that the coronavirus is now widespread across the county, a Berkshire Health Systems official issued a memo to staff on Tuesday saying that "in this new stage of the pandemic," the company will no longer furlough workers for quarantine who have been exposed to the virus.

And those who stay home should they be infected will have to use their earned sick time.

The memo, which was leaked to WAMC's Berkshire news bureau on Wednesday, also says that the health network will continue to screen workers that might have been exposed, and if so, advises self-monitoring. The new policy is based on adjustments made by the state Department of Public Health.

"You should continue to mask, check your temperature and symptoms daily, and continue to work," wrote Patrick Borek, vice president of human resources.

Employees should still stay home when sick, he said. Fevers of more than 100 degrees, or a cough, chest congestion, shortness of breath, or tight sensation in the chest, will also require a call to occupational health.

Employees can still work if they have upper respiratory symptoms like a runny nose, nasal congestion, common cold or those of seasonal allergy.

The memo drew a sharp rebuke from local union members with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. In a letter on Thursday to Darlene Rodowicz, executive vice president, they said that using earned sick time assumes that workers wouldn't have contracted the virus at work.

"For weeks, our committee has raised concerns regarding the co-mingling of patients, failure to triage and segregate patients, and most significantly, the lack of appropriate PPE being provided to frontline staff," they wrote. "To suggest that none of these issues may have contributed to an increased likelihood of viral spread among the workforce is both ridiculous and reprehensible."

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But hospital officials say the policy is in line with those at most state hospitals, and that it has treated workers exposed to the virus earlier this month fairly.

"Our organization provided paid furlough that did not impact on earned time (in conjunction with allowable workers compensation), which was not common across the nation," Michael Leary, director of media relations for the company, wrote in an email.

The new directives show how quickly a pandemic can change standards. Earlier this month, the company had to furlough more than 160 employees for a 14-day quarantine after a few patients tested positive for the virus.

As of Thursday, the company's drive-thru operation had tested more than 1,200 people, 208 of which were positive. Of those, 21 are hospitalized, 20 have been discharged, and five have died. More than 100 tests are still pending results.

In another turnaround, Rodowicz told staff on Wednesday, that all employees must now wear surgical masks, and those working directly with patients must also wear goggles. The company has a four-week supply of N95 high-protection masks and a seven-day supply of ear loop surgical masks, she said.

While nurses have learned to accept mask shortages, they don't think reverting to normal sick time policy is fair right now given new practices that offer less protection.

"Our sick time is combined with our vacation time," said Alex Huber, a nurse in the intensive care unit. "The day that this memo came out I was wearing the same mask for nine days. I'd rather have an old N95 on rather than none at all, but if a hospital worker is infected, the odds are really, that you probably got it at work."

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


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