Health care workers with Northern Light Inland Hospital test people who might have the coronavirus Thursday at a drive-thru testing site on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville. Many outpatient, elective procedures and appointments have been canceled, so staff in those areas, including medical assistants, are being reassigned to jobs such as swabbing patients at testing stations, according to Northern Light officials. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — Northern Light Health has no plans to lay off workers or reduce employees’ hourly or base pay during the coronavirus pandemic, though voluntary furloughs are being offered.

Northern Light includes many locations in Waterville, including Inland Hospital and Continuing Care, Lakewood as well as primary care, cardiovascular, women’s health and other specialties. Northern Light also includes locations such as Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital, both in Bangor.

Paul Bolin Courtesy of Northern Light

A notice sent Tuesday evening to staff, systemwide, says Northern Light’s leadership team has been working hard to ensure it is able to care for the community as well as employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The halt in our general economy is concerning,” it says. “Both can cause people to worry about their own situation, and rightfully ask questions of their employer. To be perfectly clear, Northern Light Health has no plans to conduct layoffs or involuntary furloughs, as much of our team is working to provide patient care and to support those who do. Some have raised concerns over reduced hourly wages, after reading headlines about that approach being taken by some employers in Maine. We have no plans to reduce hourly or base compensation.”

Paul Bolin, Northern Light’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer, said Thursday in a phone interview that employees are working every day to ensure the system is prepared for what they expect will be a surge of illness from coronavirus in Maine over the next few weeks.

That preparedness means working not only within the Northern Light system but also with state and local government, companies and other health care providers and organizations, according to Bolin.

“We all have a common goal to protect our community, so it’s all hands on deck,” Bolin said.

Northern Light has more than 12,000 employees. System leaders have been focusing on planning and adapting to what they expect will be patient care needs in the near term, inevitable recovery from the crisis and anticipated patient care needs at that time, according to the document given to staff Tuesday evening.

Work volume has dropped significantly in some areas and many employees have been reassigned to roles where they can use their skill sets so that work may be performed when and where patient need dictates, it says.

Nicole Avila, a physical therapist who works with Northern Light Rehabilitation, a department of Northern Light Inland Hospital, was offered a new assignment testing people coming into the hospital as in-person visits became limited in rehab due to the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of Northern Light

“This allows people to continue to earn income to support themselves and their families during COVID-19 pandemic. In some situations, in which there is no obvious reassignment, some employees have taken on roles very different from their normal work, while others have requested to use PTO (paid time off), both of which are approved based upon patient care needs. Some of our colleagues in these areas have inquired about and requested that they be allowed to take a short-term voluntary furlough from work in lieu of using PTO. We have decided to make this option available to employees who are working in areas in which patient care and business needs have dropped off due to COVID-19. We expect this voluntary, short-term option will be offered in the coming days to eligible employees.”

Bolin said Thursday that many outpatient, elective procedures and appointments have been canceled, so staff in those areas, including medical assistants, are reassigned to jobs such as swabbing patients at testing stations. Pharmacists have been compounding hand sanitizer in pharmacies and working with University of Maine and others to bottle the sanitizer and create individual-sized containers for both patients and health care workers.

The system also is working with Acadia Hospital to help employees who need extra support during these stressful times, according to Bolin.

“The Employee Assistance Program is working with Acadia to provide virtual support groups,” he said. “People have anxieties — certainly people working directly with patients affected by coronavirus. We’re trying to be proactive in letting people know there are a lot of things to do to help our community and help our colleagues help one another.”

The document Northern Light shared with employees Tuesday says the system will continue to work with employees who are eligible for, but opt not to take a voluntary furlough, to find suitable assignments and allow them the option of having paid time off.

“Our goal is to work with everyone to meet the needs of patient care and sustaining our operations all while supporting one another and offering as many creative options as we can to meet the varying needs of our entire team.”

A BENEFICIAL REASSIGNMENT

Nicole Avila, a physical therapist who works with Northern Light Rehabilitation, a department of Northern Light Inland Hospital, was offered a new assignment, as in-person visits became limited in rehab due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Avila, who has nine years of experience as a physical therapist, started a new, temporary,  job: screening employees and vendors for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the Waterville hospital. It was a reassignment that allowed her to keep working.

“I am fortunate and grateful that I can still work a full 40 hours when my main job as a physical therapist is not as busy,” Avila said. “Normally, we are extremely busy in rehab and it may start picking back up as we see urgent patients and doing more tele-health visits. Until then, I am happy to be doing my part in whatever role I am needed during this crisis.”

Avila dons a mask and greets staff from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily. She checks their temperatures using a touch-less digital thermometer, and asks a series of screening questions, including whether they are experiencing shortness of breath or have a new cough or cold.

“Staff have been very diligent about self-monitoring any symptoms and staying home if they don’t feel well,” Avila said. “People have been pretty cheerful and totally understand why we are screening and why it’s so important to do this. We are protecting our patients, each other and our community.”

Avila said she has netted a fun benefit from her new duties and schedule change — she gets to spend afternoons with her son at home.

“I usually work four 10-hour days, and now I’m working five eight-hour days,” she said. “I know it may not stay that way for long, but for right now, it means I get home a little earlier and that’s great family time.”

 

 

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