After hospitals and doctors offices across North Carolina canceled nonessential procedures and in-person appointments because of the coronavirus pandemic, many nurses and medical staff were laid off or had their hours reduced.
“It’s definitely not the situation you might think would happen during a pandemic,” said North Carolina Nurses Association CEO Tina Gordon. Her association received about 400 anonymous responses to a survey it sent out to its 7,500 member nurses last week.
“Staff hours cut drastically,” wrote one respondent.
Many others wrote their hours had been cut in half. Some nurses were told to use their paid time off, or PTO, to make up the lost wages, according to Gordon.
Last month, Carolina Eye Associates in Southern Pines temporarily laid off 117 workers. Last week, Charlotte’s Tryon Medical Partners let go about 75 of its 300 staff members — a 25% reduction. The company said in a statement it now does an increasing number of virtual visits that require fewer employees.
Both Atrium Health and Novant Health announced March 17 they would reschedule nonessential surgeries and procedures, saying the move would help conserve hospital resources and prepare for a possible increase in coronavirus patients.
“We have basically as a society asked our hospitals to completely reorient what they’re doing in order to get ready to serve the crisis,” said Brad Staats, faculty director of the Center for the Business of Health at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Hospital occupancy is down dramatically across the U.S. because of delayed nonessential procedures, according to Staats. Fewer patients translates into less hospital revenue, which hospitals can try to mitigate with hour reductions or layoffs.
“The justification of the health systems that have done this is, 'Hey, we don't have the work to do.' Unfortunately, a lot of that work that has gone away is the most profitable work," Staats said.
Staats said some health systems are reassigning employees to different jobs during the pandemic, though not every company can afford to do so. Staats added that after this health care crisis ends, laid off or furloughed workers may not be thrilled to return to their old jobs.
A spokeswoman for Novant Health said in an email Thursday the hospital system “has not initiated any furloughs.” In response to a question about whether Atrium Health has cut hours or furloughed workers, an Atrium spokesman said in email Thursday, “We have not seen that.”
As of Thursday evening, neither company had filed a layoff notice with North Carolina’s Department of Commerce.