COVID-19 testing facility at Penn Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia

Nurses and other hospital workers continue to put themselves at risk by treating others suffering from COVID-19. Like everyone else, if they catch the disease, they must quarantine for two weeks — leaving fewer people to fight the coronavirus outbreak, which is projected to overwhelm health systems even with a full staff.

Despite their importance in fighting the pandemic, these frontline workers in Pennsylvania aren’t guaranteed paid leave for their time in isolation, according to the nurse’s union representing 8,500 across the state.

As the 14-day quarantines tick by, health care workers in Philly and across the commonwealth are being told to exhaust their earned paid time off and sick days. After that’s used up, they’re being told to apply for unemployment, workers’ compensation, or an unpaid leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to Maureen May, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP).

“We’re on the front lines, and we have an increased risk of contracting the virus because we don’t have the proper protective equipment,” May said.

Hospitals across the state have been rationing protective gear due to the nationwide shortage. Direct care workers are often wearing the same single-use face masks for days, said May, a 37-year nurse who works at Temple University Hospital.

Nationwide, hospitals have sounded the alarm about a grave funding crisis. Some systems say they won’t be able to make payroll in a matter of weeks. The American Medical Association and American Nurses Association jointly asked Congress for a $100 billion funding infusion to help finance more protective gear and improve conditions in hospitals that will soon be overwhelmed.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed a law extending paid sick leave protections for workers who are homebound with the virus — but the new mandate exempts financially strapped healthcare providers like hospitals.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley said last week he thought most local hospitals had been accommodating infected workers with paid leave, though he did not offer details or names.

“The hospitals, in general, have been pretty forgiving to make sure that people continue to get paid and receive benefits during the time that they are in quarantine and can’t work,” Farley said.

With 27 local chapters across the state, PASNAP says more than two-thirds of its union members are in the Philly region.

Healthcare workers ‘not happy’ with protections

Six hospital networks in Philadelphia did not respond to requests for comment about leave policies for workers who contract the virus.

Some hospitals are offering generous paid leave time, according to union president May, but others are sending conflicting messages to panicked employees.

Sidney Gold, an employment attorney in Philadelphia, said applying for workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania can be a punitive process for employees.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from people on the front line who are not happy with the protection they’re getting,” Gold said.

To get workers’ comp benefits, hospital employees would have to demonstrate they contracted COVID-19 on the job, Gold said, and not through what’s referred to as “community spread.” Even in clear-cut cases during normal times, like roofers injured on a job site, many applications are challenged.

With the economy upended by the pandemic, employment-related claims are facing a massive backlog at the state level.

“It’s going to take a long time to process a workman’s comp claim in this environment,” Gold said.

Union president May said hospitals should be guaranteeing paid leave without people having to tap into their benefits — or risk losing money if they’ve already run out of sick time.

Some health care workers are the sole financial providers in their households, May said, and now carry the added financial burden of helping relatives who have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis.

She believes the number of health care workers who become infected will only continue to rise.

“It’s our position that, if we contract coronavirus,” May said, “we be covered without having to file paperwork for workman’s comp, unemployment or have to use our sick time.”

WHYY health reporter Nina Feldman contributed to this report.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...