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.