Atrium employees denied hazard pay despite safety concerns

Atrium employees voice concerns about protection during COVID-19 pandemic

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Nearly a dozen Atrium employees who spoke with WBTV said the safety issues at their facilities made them concerned for their health the health of their patients. Despite the less than ideal conditions executives at the hospital system have denied employees’ requests for hazard pay.

Atrium employees reached out to WBTV to express their concerns about how Atrium management is handling the COVID-19 crisis. Because of new guidelines sent by the hospital ordering employees not to talk with reporters unless approved by their communications team, the employees would only talk with WBTV if their identities were not revealed.

According to numerous Atrium employees there’s frustration because of a perceived lack of support from hospital executives. Most concerning to many employees is the changing protocols for using personal protective equipment such as masks.

“They change their policies daily,” one Atrium employee who works in an intensive care unit told WBTV.

“At first it was ‘don’t wear a mask in the hallways you’re going to cause chaos with visitors’ or with other staff’ and then it was ‘wear a mask every day’.”

After WBTV started reporting this story Atrium changed their policy on the use of masks again, according to five different employees WBTV spoke to.

According to those employees, Atrium is now requiring employees to wear the same mask for three days.

“They will give you a brown paper bag at the end of your shift you are to put your name on the mask and on the bag and they will put it under a UV light to decontaminate it,” another Atrium employee told WBV.

According to multiple Atrium employees WBTV spoke to, not alternating masks poses a potential health risk to both employees and other patients.

“I know it’s the best we can do at this point but it’s just not good enough,” one Atrium employee said.

Other hospitals and even the CDC are constantly changing guidelines for masks as supplies runs short.

Some ICU nurses also said they were told their patient caseloads could quadruple from 2 to 8.

Because of the lack of equipment, long hours and potential exposure to COVID-19, many employees said they deserve increased wages, known as hazard pay, to reflect the increasingly tough work environment.

“I’m a very positive person and I try to spin things as much as I can so I can just get through my day but it’s just getting harder and harder the situation and I’ve never been this scared in my life,” one Atrium employee told WBTV.

“We’re being expected to go into working conditions that are hazardous not just for us but those people we come home to and right now we’re getting paid our regular pay.”

One nurse WBTV spoke with emailed Atrium CEO Eugene Woods asking why nurses were not receiving hazard pay.

Senior Vice President and System Nurse Executive Maureen Swick emailed back.

“The issue of hazard pay was discussed a few weeks back with our CNEs and all agreed this was not something we could support at this time,” Swick wrote.

“As healthcare professionals, we all know there is always a risk caring for patients especially those who have gone undiagnosed.”

“I’m tired of hearing we’re all in this together, I do not feel like we’re all in this together,” one Atrium employee told WBTV.

“It would be a different story if these suits come out of the offices and get down here in the trenches with us but they’re somewhere safe in their homes with their families. Meanwhile we’re out here having to figure out what we’re going to do to feed our children and to keep a roof over our head.”

Many other employees aren’t just worried about hazard pay but receiving pay at all.

WBTV spoke with numerous Atrium employees who have had their hours cut dramatically. Those who have seen their work decrease the most work in outpatient offices or doctor offices.

In order to keep getting paid many other employees were told they would have to use their personal paid time off. Company policy states that when an employee runs out of that PTO, Atrium would loan 80-hours of PTO that would then have to be repaid.

WBTV emailed Atrium on Friday asking about their 80-hour loan PTO policy. By Monday the company announced a new policy that employees could get paid their normal rate, even if they’re not working, if they agree to work “when and where they’re needed most.”

But employees who have plenty of work, or none at all, are both similarly worried about signing the document.

Employees who are currently working are concerned that signing the document would contractually obligate them to only receive their standard rate of pay.

Other employees who are not working say they don’t know what they would be signing up for or if it would put their health at risk unnecessarily.

“It would be a different story if they would be upfront with everyone and tell them what the options are or the possibilities may be but they’re not doing that,” an Atrium employee told WBTV.

WBTV posed many of the questions raised by Atrium employees to the Atrium communications team. WBTV also asked if Atrium executives, including CEO Eugene Woods, would be taking any pay cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atrium did not answer WBTV’s specific questions bur did provide a statement on the hospital’s position.

“Our nation, state, and community are in a state of emergency. We are days away from an unprecedented surge of patients who have a virus the world has never seen before. At this time, we have two specific focuses at Atrium Heath: the safety and well-being of our teammates and the health and safety of our patients and our community. We have taken extraordinary measures in a short amount of time to make sure both of those goals are being met.

“At a time when dozens of organizations and health systems across the country are laying off workers, our teams have been working around the clock to find ways to make sure there are jobs and teammates can directly contribute to our mission of improving health, elevating hope and advancing healing – for all. We have extended many different options to our teams to help them address time off, child care and other individual circumstances that, without them, may affect their quality of life and their ability to provide quality care for our patients.

“It takes a special kind of person to work in the healthcare field – it’s a calling, and we are grateful for those who answer that call. Those who have signed up to serve our community in fulfilling our mission understand their call of duty is to protect and save the lives of others. We hope teammates choose to join us in helping those in Charlotte and the surrounding communities during their hour of greatest need. And while these times are anything but easy, we are all in this together. And we believe our teammates and community will rise to the occasion and come out of this crisis stronger and more united than ever.”

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