LOWVILLE — The board of the Lewis County hospital system voted to opt out of certain provisions included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act involving emergency paid leave and the expansion of Family Medical Leave Act.
The Lewis County Healthcare System’s Board of Managers held an emergency meeting on Wednesday evening before the Families First Act went into effect on Thursday.
According to information provided to the board by hospital Chief Executive Officer Gerald Cayer, the legislation requires employers of 500 employees or less to give full-time employees 80 hours of paid sick time or the average number of hours worked over a two-week period for a part-timer, if they can’t work for COVID-19-related reasons.
Being ordered into quarantine or isolation, having symptoms of the disease and seeking a medical diagnosis, caring for someone who has been ordered into quarantine or isolation or for a child out of school and without child care because of COVID-19 are among the reasons employees would qualify for the paid sick leave.
Under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act Expansion provision in the Families Act, which was approved by Congress last month, employees who can’t work because of caring for children out of school because of COVID-19 with no child care available for the same reason can either use vacation or sick time for the first 10 days or take unpaid leave.
For the next 10 weeks, employers must pay two-thirds of the person’s regular pay for their normal number of work hours, and employers with more than 25 employees are required to give the person their job back when the leave is over.
Employers will be given a 100 percent tax credit for the leave paid under both provisions in the Act.
As part of the act, emergency responders and health care providers, which the hospital interprets to include everyone who works at the hospital because the facility can’t run without any of them, can be exempted, Mr. Cayer said.
Raymond Mier, legal counsel for the hospital who explained the situation to the board, said that by opting out, the hospital hopes to “maintain stable and predictable staffing patterns.”
Mr. Cayer added that with the 100 percent increase in beds that need to be staffed by April 13, as well as the significantly decreased revenues for the facility as the COVID-19 crisis continues, makes the opt out necessary.
“We’re in a business where we deliver quality health care and people can have very serious consequences. We deal, quite literally, without being dramatic, with life and death. We have to have adequate staffing patterns to meet those responsibilities,” Mr. Mier said. “This doesn’t mean that there’s disregard for our employees.”
The hospital’s sick leave policy relating to the COVID-19 pandemic allows up to 10 days of paid leave, not using sick or vacation time, for employees ordered into quarantine or testing positive for the new coronavirus.
If an immediate family member is quarantined by public health and the employee chooses to stay home, they can use up to 40 hours of their sick and vacation time and up to 80 hours if the family member tests positive if they have that time available.
One aspect of the policy, however, caused some concern for two board members.
Employees ordered by public health into quarantine who test negative for the virus must use their sick, vacation or personal days to cover the time. If they don’t have any benefit time, they will not be paid while in the mandated quarantine.
“That’s a hard one for me to understand. The Department of Health tells you to stay home because you got tested, six to eight days later you find out you’re negative. Now you’re going to be charged your sick leave time back. But it was public health that told you you had to stay home,” said board member Jennifer Jones.
Mr. Cayer said that the pandemic is having a significant impact on the hospital’s financial situation so he is working to “balance all sides of the equation.”
“We are the lucky ones. We’re still getting paid. That’s the lemonade,” said Mr. Cayer. “It is incredibly stressful for the staff. I know every encounter with each other and the public, in the back of their minds is, ‘Is this person going to infect me?’ That’s a legitimate fear.”
Mr. Cayer said any employee who asks for time off because it’s too stressful can ask for it, and they will do everything they can to make that happen, but they have to use their benefit time or have an unpaid leave.
“The employees and their families are part of our community and, as a board, I think we have an obligation to also have them trust us that we’re there to protect them through these extraordinary times,” said board member Susan J. Ross. “I think if we’re going to act on a resolution that precludes any protection for them, I don’t think that’s right.”
The majority of the board, however, agreed opting out of the Act made the most sense for the hospital at this time.
It passed by a vote of 8 to 2, with Ms. Jones and Ms. Ross voting against the measure.
The resolution, which takes the hospital out of the jurisdiction of the Act, will also be up for approval by the county board of legislators in their Tuesday meeting.