Cut off: UVA Health furloughs hundreds of employees

Furloughed patient care assistant Erik Hancock says he is shocked that UVA Health is reducing crucial staff “at a time like this.” PC: Eze Amos Furloughed patient care assistant Erik Hancock says he is shocked that UVA Health is reducing crucial staff “at a time like this.” PC: Eze Amos

COVID-19 has stripped the pockets of businesses all around Charlottesville, including one of the city’s biggest: The University of Virginia Health System. Since the onset of the pandemic, the health system has lost $85 million per month due to a sharp decrease in surgeries and clinic visits. To offset these losses, it announced April 28 that it would furlough some non-patient care staff for up to three months, among other cost-saving measures.

As of May 8, 561 employees have been placed on full-time unpaid furlough, with the option to apply for unemployment or use their paid time off. Everyone will continue to receive insurance benefits.

But contrary to the health system’s initial statement, furloughed employees include those who provide patient care. One nurse practitioner (who asked that we not use her name) says some physician assistants and nurse practitioners, also known as advanced practice providers, have been furloughed for three months, while others have been placed on “rolling furloughs,” meaning they work a reduced number of weeks.

“This means in some areas that still have a lot of patients, like the COVID unit, [or that] were already short [there was already up to a 50 percent shortage of APPs in places]…we have been reduced to an unsafe skeleton crew while trying to provide patient care,” she says.

These staffing cuts put patient safety at risk, she contends, and they could have been entirely avoided.

“Comparable institutions have successfully managed to implement cost-saving measures without compromising patient safety,” she says. “All of my APP colleagues were prepared to help make sacrifices and fully anticipated salary cuts.”

“To be cutting staff providing critically needed care in a time like this when [Executive Vice President for Health Affairs] Craig Kent is still making $570,000 a year— [after] his much-touted 40 percent salary reduction—is shameful,” she adds.

In an email, spokesman Eric Swensen confirmed that UVA has cut hours for “patient-facing staff” in areas with fewer patients, but that the number of such staff with full-time unpaid furloughs for the next three months remains “very low.”

“We are eager to care for our patients, and as our volume increases so will our staffing,” he added. “We have made staffing decisions at the department level so that we can calibrate the necessary staffing levels to ensure the safest patient care. For that reason, almost all of the full-time furloughs were in non-patient care areas.”

The nurse practitioner says she will have to take multiple weeks off within the next two months. She has enough paid time off to cover it, she says, but if it’s extended past July, she will have to apply for unemployment.

Her APP colleagues on furlough without enough (or any) paid time off are not as lucky. Receiving notifications about the furloughs just a few days before they took effect, they had little time to plan, she says. According to Swensen, affected employees were notified the week of April 28—shortly before the furloughs took effect on May 3.

Some employees took to social media to express their worry and frustration over UVA’s decisions—but declined to speak to C-VILLE about their experiences, fearing they would lose their jobs for good.

“It sucks, but I am hopeful that unemployment will come through and make all this doable. I’m a single-income household with 50/50 shared kids, so it’s nerve-wracking,” shared an inpatient nurse on Reddit. “Nine out of about 25 people in my department were furloughed.”

One outpatient care unit employee, who would only speak to C-VILLE anonymously, says they have been furloughed until July 25, and that their supervisor simply told them “to apply for unemployment.”

“It is really stressful and depressing. I have a number of bills to pay on top of mortgage and medical bills,” the employee says. “The unprofessional attitude of my supervisor was hinting for me to seek other jobs.”

Another anonymous UVA employee, who works as a certified nursing assistant, has been on furlough since April 30. She is not scheduled to go back to work until the end of July, and is unsure if she will return.

“My boss told me on 4/30, so I didn’t have a notice. I wish I did. I did not have enough time to file [for unemployment] that week, so it should start this week,” she says.

Patient care assistant Erik Hancock was also furloughed with just a few days notice, and he’s now applied for unemployment.

“We were expecting furloughs, but we didn’t know how many, or when, or what department,” he says. “Things had been thrown up in the air left and right.”

While Hancock still plans to return to his job part-time after the furlough, he is shocked that UVA is reducing crucial staff “at a time like this.” And with the way it’s handled the situation, the nurse practitioner predicts some workers may decide to not come back at all.

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Paul
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Paul

There have been reportedly less than 60 people hospitalized at our local hospitals for COVID over the last 5 months. Why has UVA cut back on surgeries and normal patient services? We thus don’t seem to have an overtaxed bed or hospital resource issue. In fact it seems underutilized. Why aren’t we treating people for health problems? Wouldn’t that reply these furloughed people too? Just wondering what the rationale here is if a reporter could explore that. Thank you.

Matt Morrill
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Matt Morrill

I believe it’s to limit infection risk for admitted patients

Paul
Guest
Paul

Thank you Matt. My follow up would be, could UVA health have a “COVID section” of the facility where they isolate the apparently small number of patients being seen for that? Reportedly under 30 since May.

Also, how many non COVID patients have been turned away or have not sought treatment? If that number is high, say in the 100s or 1000s, that would be interesting to know. And wouldn’t that drive policy?

These are questions it would be great if a reporter would ask. Maybe they already have been reported.

Jason
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Jason

Pursuant to the governors initial executive order all procedures that used PPE that could possibly be delayed, were ordered to be delayed.

Paul
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Paul

Thank you Jason. I guess it would be good to see someone ask the governor these questions above too and a reporter to dive into that.

Chris
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Chris

So then why did vcu not go through the same problem as uva? Why is uva furloughing employees while vcu is not?

commonsense
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commonsense

I think because each health system is different. Multiple health systems have furloughed employees- Hopkins, Mayo, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Michigan to name a few. Also, the VCU president said in the last week they are likely headed for furloughs.

Chris
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Chris

“Headed for furloughs” is a far cry from what’s already happened at UVa. The difference is the decisions that UVa Med Center leadership made vs the decisions that VCU leadership made. It’s impossible to conclude that UVa leadership made the correct choices. This is a largely rural area and to think that the virus would be so widespread here was foolish. They made mistakes and should be held accountable. A journalist should write about those mistakes.

commonsense
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commonsense

Again, these health systems each have their own unique set of challenges. Given the constraints, each health system had to respond differently due to multiple factors. VCU may have been in a better financial situation prior to all of this (higher reserves, less construction). But if VCU had more in the bank than UVA due to any number of factors, it makes sense they haven’t had to take the same actions at the same time. Can you point to a few specific mistakes UVA made? Again, the governor told all hospitals to stop elective surgeries. It’s not like UVA could… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

We all know the health systems are different. That’s obvious in that VCU is literally hiring and UVa is literally laying people off (I’m sorry, “furloughing”). As you are perfectly aware, UVa burned through 3 million dollars a day for over a month before taking the steps they took. Gross incompetence. That is mistake number one. As you are perfectly aware, UVa obfuscates their desicion making. The mistakes they made they kept secret so that someone like you can ask someone like me to point to a specific mistake, all the while knowing that I won’t be able to as… Read more »

commonsense
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commonsense

I wasn’t trying to make this a personal issue. I agree, people should investigate and ask questions; I just have a feeling you won’t find some nefarious reason for the furloughs other than an immediate and substantial decrease in revenue for about 2 months. They blew through 3 million a day paying their employees. They could have furloughed or laid off people at that point and decreased the amount they lost; it wouldn’t appear you’d be happy about that. Prior to the COVID crisis UVA was hiring and was building and expanding so they could handle pt demand. I think… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

https://www.dailyprogress.com/news/uva/uva-employees-endure-furloughs-as-hospital-wrestles-precarious-financials/article_ce6e22eb-d5b0-5549-8f04-0deb6b170c2f.html

Fortunately the progress is on the case. Scuttlebutt about mismanagement of the new tower and how is a drain on financials. Sounds like uva has been mismanaged for years and now it’s coming home to roost. Easy to balance when times are good. Effective leadership and management is planning for eventual downtime’s, which uva has not done.

commonsense
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commonsense

one example where the response isn’t perfect is furloughing people as you’re trying to increase pt care. I think if you are trying to go from 10% to 100% (in terms of pt care) you shouldn’t go from 100% to (guessing here) 70% in terms of staffing. That doesn’t create the best environment.

Chris Meyer
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Chris Meyer

It is “shameful” that the CEO of the Health System thinks making $570,000/yr while furloughing people is acceptable “leadership.” While his and other executives’ high salaries can’t bring everyone back from furlough, it would be better than this current disaster of leadership.

The Charlottesvillian
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The Charlottesvillian

To me this is absolutely inexcusable and the health system should be investigated. This is the top hospital in Virginia, it should have had way more than 7 million in reserves and for Craig Kent to not have an answer as to why the reserves were that low is unacceptable. UVA spends billions every year building buildings at the drop of a hat, yet they can’t handle a drop in revenue for a few months? With a budget as big as theirs what finance department especially at a hospital connected to one of the best business schools in the state… Read more »