Many nurses are waking up to a grim reality amid the Omicron surge. Some are being asked to continue working even if they test positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic. Others say they must use paid time off, including sick days and vacation time, if they need to self-isolate at home. That’s according to ten nurses at five different hospitals and two unions representing thousands of providers across the country.
The Consequences of Testing Positive
Hospital administrators are doing everything they can to keep nurses on the job amid the current staffing crisis. Many facilities can’t afford to let workers self-isolate at home if they test positive and aren’t showing symptoms. If they are showing symptoms or need to recover at home, they might be asked to forgo their vacation time.
The decision has caused outrage across the nursing community.
“You’re talking about a group of people who sat at bedsides — not one a night, multiple, because we were consistently losing people. We were holding the iPads as people said their last goodbyes,” said registered nurse Ana Bergeron who also serves as the president of a local union affiliate. “I can’t tell you how sick it makes me now being called a hero, because that’s not how we’re being treated by our employers.”
According to a memo sent to the staff at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, California, “Healthcare providers (HCP) who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic may return to work immediately without isolation and without testing. These healthcare providers must wear an N95 respirator for source control. The HCP may be assigned to Covid-19 positive patients if possible.”
“At St. Francis Medical Center, employees who fall under this criteria may choose to return to work or follow the guidelines for sick leave as set forth in their collective bargaining agreement,” spokesperson Chris Yarnovich said. “St. Francis continues to institute all safety standards and measures to mitigate staffing shortages as we continue to care for patients during this surge.”
Officials with the hospital said these guidelines are in line with the latest recommendations from the California Department of Public Health. The rule will be in effect from Jan. 8 to Feb 1.
The department said it was “extremely grateful” to all of the state’s health care workers, but it has given hospitals and emergency services providers “temporary flexibility” because they are reaching capacity. However, it added that “hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool.”
Nurses curious about their status may have to get tested outside of work. “In-house Covid testing is limited to employees who have approved vaccine exemptions,” the hospital memo added.
These guidelines will vary from facility to facility, but nurses at hospitals in Maine, Florida, Missouri, and California all said they were told to use personal paid time off if they tested positive. None of them had the option of using paid administrative leave.
Laura Gosselin, a nurse in Maine, said everyone in her family received special pay from their employers when they tested positive for COVID-19 but she had to use her vacation time.
“It was like a slap in the face,” said Gosselin. “We are just working our hardest and doing our best. I always felt like nurses were so respected and held in such high esteem. I feel like that has been pulled away. We still take care of our patients and want to take care of our community. But we deserve better. Our government and employer have let us down.”
Registered nurse Candice Cordero, who works in Florida, said she experienced a similar situation when trying to self-isolate at home according to the CDC’s recommendations, but the agency abruptly shortened the isolation period from seven days to five.
“I got sick with Covid for the third time. It hit me really hard,” Cordero said. “I let work know I was positive, and they told me to take the seven days that were recommended at the time. I called after a week and said I still had symptoms. They said, ‘You’re supposed to be better after five days.’ But that’s not really how Covid works.”
When she asked for more time to recuperate, the hospital told her she would have to apply for short-term disability benefits through the Family Medical Leave Act and use her personal paid time off for at least half the time she was out.
“I feel like they’re pushing people back into the workforce to minimize shortage,” she said.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law last spring, gave employers with 500 or fewer employers incentives to give their workers paid time off if they contract COVID-19, but those benefits expired in September. Now the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, a trade union that represents 32,000 registered nurses in the state, is calling on hospitals to reinstate the policy.
“Whether you have separate banks of vacation and sick leave or a combined bank, utilizing hours over and over again for this Covid pandemic is very disconcerting,” said Denise Duncan, the union’s president. “Some of our workers’ banks have been depleted, meaning less time off for other things. There needs to be work-life balance.”