As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, healthcare facilities are looking for temporary workers. This has contributed to some healthcare workers working at multiple facilities, which, in turn, increases the risk that some healthcare workers are inadvertently spreading the COVID-19 virus to multiple facilities.
Inadvertently Spreading COVID-19: A Real-World Example
The first reported incidence of the COVID-19 virus in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin occurred on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Here, a long-term care facility resident had tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, that very day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) issued a report on the initial COVID-19 outbreak at a Seattle-area long-term care facility. A key finding of the report included the fact that healthcare workers working at multiple facilities contributed to the spread of the virus to at least eight other local nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
As Kristen Johnson, director of the Washington-Ozaukee Public Health Department watched the virus reveal itself in other facilities under her jurisdiction, her department attempted to trace the infected individuals’ contacts. The goal? To figure out the origin of the outbreak and how it was spreading so quickly. Taking into account what she had read in the CDC’s report, Ms. Johnson eventually deduced the common contact of the infected individuals. As it turns out, there was a hospice worker displaying COVID-19 symptoms who had worked in multiple facilities that were now infected. Following this discovery, the department then found more COVID-19 positive healthcare workers who worked in multiple facilities.
Long-Term Care Facilities and COVID-19
While healthcare workers are not prohibited from floating among facilities, it is remarkably important to note that COVID-19 poses a particular threat to long-term care facility residents. Healthcare workers’ movement between these facilities, then, is extremely high risk. As a result, Ms. Johnson issued an order on March 25, 2020. Long-term care facility workers, including those employed by staffing agencies or hospice providers, were prohibited from working in multiple facilities in Washington and Ozaukee counties. People working in multiple facilities in those counties were ordered to immediately disclose that fact to their employers.
Ms. Johnson is not alone in seeking to address this issue. Various other cities and counties across the country have placed a range of restrictions on staff working in multiple long-term care facilities.
Addressing the Issue
Regulators and facility operators are trying to restrict the movement of healthcare workers among facilities, but are having issues putting a stop to it altogether. The issue with this, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is that “restricting staff working across multiple providers could be counterproductive to workforce issues in the face of this unprecedented pandemic.” The long-term care workforce shortage has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Limiting staff members to a single facility is often not a luxury that long-term care facilities have. Even as long-term care facilities watch the COVID-19 virus jump between its facilities, they acknowledge that shared staffing is the only option.
More and more facilities are looking for temporary workers as the pandemic intensifies. Although many would like workers to stick to a single facility, this is become less and less feasible, says the CEO of one staffing agency. There are not enough workers to fill the void and facilities seeking temporary workers are just looking to fill vacancies. Even when agencies can assign a worker to a single facility, there is no guarantee that the worker is not working elsewhere. Healthcare workers are not required to disclose whether they are working for another agency or facility.
Are You A Healthcare Worker? Know Your Rights
Some healthcare workers are finding themselves pressured by their employers to report back to work while still ill with COVID-19 as a result of staffing shortages. As a result, healthcare workers who are off from work sick and trying to get well are being forced to go back to work, even before their COVID-19 test results have come back.
If you are put in a position which puts public and other employees at risk, you have the right to be free from retaliation if you refuse to return to work. CEPA is a New Jersey law that protects employees from retaliation for objecting to something that they reasonably believed violated the law.
Among other things, CEPA makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee if they refuse or object to participate in actions they reasonably believe are violative of a clear public policy requirement relating to public health, safety, or welfare. In the case of a certified or licensed health care professional, CEPA also applies to an employee who objects or refuses to participate in an activity they reasonably believed constitutes improper quality of patient care.
If you need help seeking navigating your rights as an employee, our legal team can serve you.
Employment Attorneys At McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C. Advocate On Behalf Of COVID-19 Workers
Our passionate employment law attorneys understand that we are living in an unprecedented time and that for all workers, especially those who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety, fear, and frustration are all very real. If you are a healthcare worker, we want to reassure you that you have certain rights during this time and that you cannot be retaliated against for filing a complaint. The attorneys at McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C. take a proactive approach to each and every legal issue our clients face. Please call our Red Bank office at 732-842-6500, our Marlton office at 856-985-9800, OR contact us at 888-396-0736 or online for a free consultation. We represent clients throughout New Jersey.