Despite a New York state mandate that companies allow as many employees as possible to work from home, the Montefiore Medical Center, an academic hospital located in the Bronx, is continuing to have "nonessential" workers at the Rose F. Kennedy Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center (CERC) come into the office, much to the concern of the employees themselves.
Once there, many of the hospital workers, which include developmental pediatricians, psychologists, social workers, and language and occupational therapists, simply connect with patients on the phone or through Skype and other video-conferencing services, because their patients have been told to avoid in-person sessions with them.
"People are so frightened and really angry," said one employee, who requested anonymity because they feared repercussions at their job. "It's dangerous. There have been tons of COVID-19 cases everywhere at this point, especially in New York, and there's a real lack of transparency here. We don't really know what we're walking into, even though there are constant reassurances that we're safe. It doesn't feel that way."
CERC informed its employees as recently as March 11 that they were considered part of a "nonessential medical service," according to internal emails reviewed by VICE. (CERC, one of the many clinics associated with Montefiore, focuses on helping kids with language disorders, behavioral problems, and other disabilities.)
Nevertheless, CERC continued to demand these clinicians go to the office and work at full capacity until March 30, two weeks after Mayor Bill de Blasio closed down the New York City school system. Now, employees are instead forced to commute a few times per week, as opposed to every day. The employee VICE spoke to estimated that this likely affects as many as 150 people.
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The employee worried that they and others could potentially contract the coronavirus or spread it to others, when they simply didn't need to be leaving their homes to do their jobs.
"It's absurd," the employee said. "Therapists are trying to figure out how to deliver therapy virtually all over the world. I understand it's difficult—I do—but other hospitals are doing that more effectively. We don't need to be here physically." (Other New York hospitals, like the Mount Sinai Health System and NYU Langone Medical Center, appear to have been developing work-at-home measures for nonessential employees for close to a month. Montefiore did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
CERC has asserted in emails that Montefiore is "on top of things" and appropriately responding to the global pandemic. But the center didn't require its staff to wear masks at work until just last week, according to the employee, and it appeared to react slowly overall to the coronavirus outbreak.
It took until March 23 for the administration at CERC to announce in an email that Montefiore would allow the clinic to operate at "a reduced workforce by 50%," which permitted "all staff [to] work from home for a portion of each week." CERC has since taken further precautions, such as temperature checks of employees, and has advised people to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, and stand at least six feet away from one another, according to an email. (The employee said that it was unclear whether Montefiore or CERC itself was implementing these changes.)
Regardless, nonessential hospital workers are still being asked to travel to work and operate on a staggered schedule—either two or three days out of the work week. There, they isolate themselves in their offices, phones and computers in hand.
"Really, it's as if I don't know who is making decisions about my work or life right now," the employee said. "It's so mysterious how these choices are even being made."
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