The number of health care workers calling in sick at the city’s public hospitals has skyrocketed amid the coronavirus pandemic — with the absentee rate doubling compared to before the killer virus slammed the city.
The situation is so dire that top officials with Health + Hospitals are cracking the whip — demanding a doctor’s note to document illness for a sick day.
An April 10 memo sent out by top H + H brass to employees at the network of 11 hospitals and clinics suggested that workers at some facilities might be taking advantage of the epidemic because there are “very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection.”
“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 note sent by Health + Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Machelle Allen, and the head of human resources, Yvette Villanueva said.
The memo, first obtained by The City, added, “As a response to this staffing emergency, we will be implementing new processes to ensure that those who are out and using sick or COVID leave are entitled to use that leave.”
Health + Hospitals staff requesting sick leave now must provide a doctor’s note or other proof that they tested positive for COVID-19 test or are displaying symptoms from the virus or another other illness within five days to get sick pay.
Both H + H CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz and Mayor Bill de Blasio said maintaining adequate staffing has been a major concern because a workforce stretched thin by high sickouts and toiling under hazardous conditions as they try to save very sick coronavirus patients.
Nurses at many hospitals have complained of a shortage of personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns, exposing them to COVID-19 from patients and others. Some have died from the coronavirus.
Katz said “a lot of people, large numbers of people are calling in sick — double the usual rate. … We’re definitely seeing a large number of people missing in action.”
Katz, in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association Monday, said that many hospitals workers are sick from COVID exposure but others are out because they’re scared about getting infected and spreading COVID to other family members.
He said it’s a big morale booster when sick nurses and doctors recover from COVID-19 and return to the front.
“It’s a very fluid, difficult situation right now,” said, Katz.
He repeatedly called the medical workers “heroes” and said he’s even trying to find a way to give them bonuses during tough fiscal times triggered by the pandemic.
De Blasio, during a Tuesday press briefing, said Health + Hospitals is hiring, adding, “We need those key health care workers right now.”
Unlike other departments such as the NYPD, Health + Hospitals has not provided specific stats on its absenteeism rate. The mayor promised Tuesday the data will be released soon.
Asked about the sick out memo, Health + Hospitals issued a statement Tuesday that said, “We are in unprecedented circumstances and our frontline heroes are going above and beyond to keep New Yorkers safe.
“We are doing everything we can to adjust to a rapidly evolving situation, and in the process reduce undue burden on employees and ensure that our facilities are staffed appropriately. Understandably these are frightening times, and we are all pulling together so that we can save more New Yorkers.”