Brett Dahlberg is a health reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
The University of Rochester Medical Center is considering furloughing employees starting in early May.
There was an indication that furloughs would be coming throughout the university system after a memo went out to employees earlier this month warning of the need for financial belt-tightening because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, medical center CEO Dr. Mark Taubman wrote in a Monday email to staff, URMC has exhausted other alternatives for reducing expenses, and it has become "painfully apparent that a temporary workforce reduction will be necessary."
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Taubman said that despite austerity measures already in place, furloughs will be needed as early as May 10 to restore financial stability. He said the furloughs are intended to be “temporary and flexible” in an effort to avoid permanent layoffs and bring people back to work as services at the medical center that were suspended due to COVID-19 are gradually restored.
The medical center employs about 16,000 full-time workers and 2,000 part-time employees, a spokesperson said. The spokesperson said it was unclear how many of those employees would be furloughed or for how long. Department managers are submitting plans this week.
Taubman said medical center officials are hopeful that most employees will be able to return within three to four months as operations return to normal, although he said it is impossible to predict that, given the uncertain nature of the outbreak.
The pandemic has taken a heavy financial toll on URMC and many hospitals across the country. As hospitals in Italy and then New York City buckled under a surge of people needing lifesaving treatment for COVID-19, New York state required all hospitals to prepare for a flood of patients.
"We had to create a tremendous amount of capacity for a surge that has never come," a URMC spokesperson said. "We achieved that capacity in large part by putting off every surgery and procedure that could be put off."
But those elective procedures are money-makers. Hospitals were losing their most profitable products at the same time as they were buying up as many masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators as they could.
"It was a smart thing to do from a public health perspective," URMC's chief medical officer Dr. Michael Apostolakos said last week.
But the medical center could only endure the financial cost for a matter of weeks. "We’re losing money, and we can only tolerate that for a relatively short period of time," Apostolakos said.
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that some upstate hospitals will be able to resume elective outpatient procedures. But Rochester-area health systems said the regulations governing when they can begin admitting more patients were too strict.
Cases of COVID-19 have plateaued in Monroe County at a rate the health care system can handle, and hospitals have excess capacity, local officials said.
URMC has continued paying some staff who were not allowed to go to work. Some can work remotely.
But in other cases, remote work is not possible. Most operating rooms, for example, have not seen an operation in weeks. The employees who clean the instruments and set up those rooms can't do their work from home.
They've been kept on the payroll, but they'll be furloughed starting next week, a spokesperson said.
Gradually, the furloughs will be lifted, URMC officials said. People whose procedures were delayed will eventually need care, and the medical center will recall staff from furlough as patient numbers rise.
A spokesperson for Rochester Regional Health said she was unaware of any furlough plans at that hospital system.