While Maine’s two largest hospital systems are offering workers employer-paid leave if they need to be quarantined for 14 days because of coronavirus exposure, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston is requiring employees to use their own sick or vacation time.

“We can do better for our staff,” said Harold Herschlag, a nurse in the St. Mary’s emergency department. “My entire team of nurses is giving everything they have, and they deserve to be treated at least as well as employees at other companies are being treated.”

Herschlag said he personally has not had to be quarantined.

St. Mary’s is a 233-bed hospital and a member of Covenant Health, a Catholic-based Massachusetts health care company that includes hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, rehabilitation centers and other health care services. St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor is also part of Covenant. A St. Joseph spokeswoman did not respond to a reporter’s messages late Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

Herschlag said Walmart has a better COVID-19 sick leave policy than St. Mary’s. The department store chain is providing full employer-paid leave to employees who must be quarantined.

One nurse at St. Mary’s, who did not want to be identified because of fear of reprisal from the hospital, recently returned to work from a 14-day quarantine after being exposed by a COVID-19 positive patient. The nurse said the hospital’s human resources department gave instructions to use earned time, in which sick days and vacation days are lumped together.

“It’s very frustrating,” said the nurse, who did not become sick during quarantine. “I took care of the patient like I was supposed to, and I have to use my own time?”

Herschlag said new employees who do not have much earned time would be forced to cancel vacations and personal days later in the year, another sacrifice on top of the work they are doing now to protect patients and the community.

Jason Gould, St. Mary’s spokesman, confirmed in an email response to questions that “staff members who are unable to work are required to use earned time.” Gould said employees who don’t have enough earned time to cover the 14 days of a quarantine could draw on future earned time so they don’t have to take unpaid days off.

Gould refused to answer further questions.

Hospital staff are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 432 people in Maine, 75 of whom have been hospitalized.

At MaineHealth, all employees are given employer-paid leave if they have to self-quarantine, said John Porter, MaineHealth spokesman. The time in quarantine does not count against their paid time off, he said.

“We were originally thinking about making a distinction between work-exposed and exposed in the community, but at this point (because the disease is widespread) it’s too hard to tell, so now everyone is eligible if they have to be quarantined,” Porter said.

MaineHealth, which has 22,000 employees, operates nine hospitals in Maine, including Maine Medical Center in Portland, and numerous health care facilities across the state.

Northern Light Health, which operates Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland and seven other hospitals in Maine, has a similar policy, but does require that the exposure to COVID-19 be work-related.

Northern Light officials acknowledged that it may be difficult to prove whether the exposure happened at work.

“We need to examine all of the facts case-by-case for any exposure, but if we determined that the exposure is most likely work related, then yes, employees would get regular pay while self-isolating,” said Chris Facchini, Northern Light spokesman.

Kate Carlisle of Central Maine Healthcare, which operates Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, said employees who are required to quarantine have a choice to apply for short-term disability, use the system’s “extended sick leave bank” or use their own paid time off. Those who use the sick leave bank are paid 60 percent of their pay.

Todd Ricker, lead labor representative for Maine State Nurses Association, the union that represents Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical center and seven other small, rural hospitals, said all of the union-represented hospitals have employer-paid leave for COVID-19-related quarantine time, and said all hospitals in the state should do the same.

“One hundred percent, the employer should pay for this, no question,” Ricker said.

Congress recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which as of April 1 requires that public sector employees and some private sector employees receive their full pay during COVID-19 quarantine. However, because the law exempts larger businesses, the new law would only apply to the smallest hospitals.

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