Social workers worry about going to office during coronavirus, hospital says they are 'essential'

Key Points
  • A pair of social workers at one of those hospitals, NYU Langone, say they are deeply concerned that the hospital is still having them and their social work colleagues come into work, which they said they are able to do remotely, such as with phone calls with patients.
  • NYU Langone said social workers are "essential staff."
  • Officials also said social workers and other staff have appropriate personal protection.
A view of parked ambulances in front of NYU Langone hospital amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 26, 2020 in New York City.
John Nacion | NurPhoto | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has put New York City hospitals into full battle stations mode, as doctors, nurses and other staff treat infected patients, try to save their lives and keep other people from getting COVID-19.

But a pair of social workers at one of those hospitals, NYU Langone, say they are deeply concerned that the hospital is still having them and their social work colleagues come into work, which they said they are able to do remotely, such as with phone calls with patients.

However, senior NYU Langone officials told CNBC on Sunday evening that social workers, like doctors and nurses and other medical workers, are "essential" staffers, unlike some other employees who are being allowed, as a rule, to work remotely during the outbreak.

NYU Langone officials strongly disputed the two social workers' claims, which were detailed when this article first was published Saturday.

Social workers who spoke to CNBC said that NYU Langone supervisors resisted requests by employees to work from home and call patients on the phone, rather than interacting with them.

"They still made us see patients in their rooms until this week," the first social worker said. "And now we are not allowed to see patients in their room."

The second social worker, who spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, said that supervisors are "allowing some workers that brought in" notes excusing them from work for medical reasons to work remotely.

"The rest of us are on the front line in a hospital filled of COVID-19 positive patients," that second social worker complained.

"At this point, we are only speaking to the patients, families telephonically," the second social worker said. 

"So it makes zero sense why they are asking us to walk into the building everyday," she said. "It's unnecessary extra bodies that could only cause the spread of this virus."

NYU Langone officials adamantly denied the social workers' claims about a delay in precautions for staff safety, and also denied there had been a change in hospital policy about social workers entering patients' rooms.

They said that social workers can still enter patients' rooms, particularly when it is necessary, but that in some cases those workers are interacting with patients remotely from elsewhere in the hospital.

"For those employees who have been classified as 'non-essential,' they have been recommended to work from home," the hospital said in a statement.

"Essential staff are asked to come to work and to wear protective gear, if they are in close patient contact."

In a statement, NYU Langone said, "social workers are undeniably essential healthcare personnel, not only to the patients they serve, but also to the care teams they support."

"Caring for patients is the nature of their profession — and in most cases cannot be done remotely," the statement said. "We have also provided tools such as telemedicine to allow workers to communicate with patients if it is not necessary to be directly at the bedside."

Hospital officials also said that other social work staffers were "embarrassed" at the two unnamed social workers' claims because they inaccurately characterized the actual conditions at the Manhattan hospital.

And the officials said that NYU Langone has a strong internal reporting system for employees to voice complaints about workplace safety or issues related to patient safety. 

They noted it was incumbent on a worker to voice complaints, and that there are many avenues for staffers to raise concerns.

The two workers also complained to CNBC about a lack of personal protective equipment, what they believe to be unsafe practices for clocking into shifts and lack of adequate work space to avoid coming into close contact with colleagues.

"Last week they wouldn't let us wear masks and told us [the coronavirus] wasn't spread on surfaces or clothes," one of those social workers at NYU Langone told CNBC.

Dr. Fritz Francois, NYU Langone's chief medical officer, who oversees the hospital's social workers, said that the claim that social workers were discouraged from wearing masks was "absolutely not true."

One social worker said it was only starting March 20 that her supervisors allowed her to wear surgical masks, which prevent the social workers from spreading any infection they might have but do not protect the wearer from catching the virus, as N95 masks are designed to do.

"They gave us one mask," another social worker said. "One mask that protects the patients from what we could potentially expose them to … These masks do not protect us."

But Francois said that even before the coronavirus outbreak, social workers were instructed to wear masks in appropriate situations, and that the hospital has followed guidelines for masks issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He noted that posted on the doorways of rooms of patients who are infectious with any disease, COVID-19 or otherwise, are instructions about what personal protective gear should be worn by staffers entering the rooms.

And he reiterated his unqualified denial that social workers were told they could not wear masks.

NYU Langone told CNBC that the hospital was taking appropriate steps to protect workers and patients.

And Francois said staffers at the hospital are being provided with sufficient protective gear to thwart infection from or to patients.

The hospital, in a statement, also said that adopting new policies to protect staffers has been a "continuous process – we are learning everyday new and improved ways."

Social workers at NYU Langone said that they started being concerned weeks ago about the spread of COVID-19 to staff, and the risk of infecting patients as a result.

"A lot of our patients are testing positive," said the first NYU Langone social worker who spoke with CNBC.

"The patients that I've spoken to are terrified," the worker said. "All of them have cried to me on the phone." 

Francois said that the hospital had begun preparing months ago for the possibility of coronavirus spreading to the United States, and New York, and that the hospital implemented procedures to deal with the virus at the time of the first reported case in the U.S.

The two social workers said that when they and their colleagues are calling patients from elsewhere in the hospital, they are in tight quarters, without the six-foot gap recommended to avoid spreading the virus.

NYU Langone, in a statement, said, "With respect to social distancing, we have continually instructed our staff on CDC and state guidelines, which, as you know, have evolved from when they were first established – and which continue to change."

"As an institution, we are continuing to monitor these changes and make decisions based on these changes and in the interest of our patients and staff," the statement said.

"It's important to remember that at the start of the pandemic there was no guidance available regarding how many feet individuals should stand apart to be safe. What was stated in your article was again, absolutely false."

In the statement to CNBC, a spokeswoman for NYU Langone wrote, "We are providing that protective equipment based on CDC guidelines.  In addition, implementing policies that protect our staff is a continuous process – we are learning everyday new and improved ways to protect our workers – and we will continue to do so until this crisis is over."

The first social worker who spoke to CNBC said even now, "A lot of non-essential employees come in and out" of the hospital, which is located on Manhattan's East Side.

Therapists in art, horticulture and essential oils are still being forced to go into work, the social worker said.

Francois strongly denied that such therapists were still being told to come into the hospital.

That's in addition to pre-surgical screeners, whose job it is to call incoming patients to prepare them for surgery and do not need to personally see patients. 

"All these people are taking the subway everyday," the worker said.

"It's just bringing in more bodies and spreading the virus potentially."

When the staffer raised those concerns with a supervisor, "she just told me NYU was on top of it."

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That same supervisor told the worker that coronavirus could not be spread on hard surfaces, which is not true, the staffer noted.

The worker said "we use our fingerprints to clock in and clock out" on the hospital's payroll timekeeping system.

That fingerprint surface is used by hundreds of employees. Workers were told to use Purell to clean their fingers afterward and discouraged from using a computer-based clock-in system, according to the social workers.

"This week they changed the policy" of the fingerprint system, the worker said although staffers still have to use the same keypad to enter numbers to clock in and out.

"Everyone is still using the same touchpad," the worker said.

Hospital officials said that the bottle of Purell hand sanitizer is right next to the keypad entry, and also reiterated that people could clock in on a computer.

"As a hospital, we consistently remind our faculty and staff on the importance of good hand hygiene," the hospital said in a statement.

"Even before the pandemic, performing good hand hygiene has ALWAYS been our standard practice. This is something our institution has long emphasized and measures for staff compliance."

Clarification: This article was updated Sunday to reflect additional comments by NYU Langone officials, who strongly deny claims made by two social workers quoted throughout the article.