NYC Hospitals Require In-Person Presence for Telehealth Work

A social worker in New York City was home, caring for his sick son, when the hospital at which he works ordered him to report back to work. His son had COVID-19, yet his hospital told him he had to show up in person.

APRIL 15, 2020 -- A social worker in New York City was home, caring for his sick son, when the hospital at which he works ordered him to report back to work. His son had COVID-19, yet his hospital told him he had to show up in person.

The social worker's situation is just one of many NYC Health + Hospitals employees who could work remotely yet are required to report in person. His circumstances were described in a letter sent by Lichten & Bright, a law firm representing the New York City Health Services Employees Union, Local 768.

"Despite the fact that all or virtually all of the work social workers perform can be done remotely, only a handful…are being permitted to work from home," said the letter, which was written on behalf of about 1000 social workers and 150 medical records specialists and addressed to NYC H+H CEO Mitchell Katz, MD.

Most social workers stopped seeing patients in person in early March. But many still face crowded conditions at several points during their work day. They take public transportation to work, come face-to-face with other healthcare workers and patients in elevators, and some attend daily meetings with up to 10 employees in conference rooms too small to stay six feet apart, the letter says.

"The social workers are scared to go to work," said Daniel Bright, the letter's author. "They're baffled by the lack of any management response that would allow them to work from home. They are worried about getting exposed to the coronavirus while riding the subway or the bus to work or at work from a doctor or nurse or patient, and getting sick themselves or taking it home to their families."

There is no good reason that the social workers should be compelled to be physically at work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright said. The handful of social workers at NYC H+H's World Trade Center Environmental Health Center clinic at Bellevue who have been allowed to work from home on an ad hoc basis, he said, have done so successfully.

In response to Bright's letter, the hospital system issued a statement that seemed to downplay workers' assessment of the situation, and included the following: "NYC Health + Hospital 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. Depending on the facility, the department, and the role they play, decisions are made by our hospital leaders on whether their critical work could be done remotely."

Recently, many medical associations have issued statements supporting the rights of healthcare workers to speak up without fear of repercussion. But NYC H+H social workers have been complying with the orders because they say they're scared of retaliation: In daily video conference calls, an administrator at one of NYC H+H's hospitals has shown exasperation when asked about working from home, multiple employees told Medscape Medical News. And other questions, they said, such as whether staff could receive hazard pay, were scoffed at. Instead, the administration mentioned disciplinary action for those who didn't show up to work.

During Thursday's call, a recording of which was obtained by Medscape, the CEO of one NYC H+H hospital chastised his employees for taking their concerns to the press.

"People are just taking things and you know, using things for their benefit to be able to create problems for us who are trying to do our jobs," he said, adding that he refuses to be bullied or blackmailed and that he'll continue to do what he needs to do as CEO — but he wanted people to know "some of the garbage I have to deal with."

He also reminded employees of documentation people need to provide if they don't come in to work for being sick or taking a personal leave so the hospital can verify that "you have a condition that warrants you being out."

Christopher Miller, a spokesperson for the hospital system, said that "some employees in certain functions may be approved to telecommute." But employees contacted by Medscape who see all of their clients remotely said their requests to telecommute have not been approved.

At this point, it's no longer a theoretical problem. COVID-19 appears to have spread among a cluster of people reporting to work in one of the H+H hospitals, employees said. In some cases, employees' family members also became ill.

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