Boston Medical Center is putting 700 employees on furlough — about 10 percent of its workforce — as it braces for major financial losses from the coronavirus pandemic.
Like other hospitals, it cut elective surgeries and nonurgent medical appointments to slow the spread of the virus and to make space for patients sick with the virus. The top official at the hospital, which serves much of the city’s indigent population, said that a sudden and drastic drop in revenue is the reason behind the painful move.
“We have reassigned a number of staff members and made the difficult decision to furlough approximately 10 percent of our health system workforce,” BMC’s chief executive, Kate Walsh, said in an e-mail to employees Tuesday. “Although furloughed employees will cease to work temporarily, they will remain in active status with the expectation of returning.”
The move comes at a time when a number of health care providers are slashing salaries and making other cuts to respond to a sudden drop-off in normal business due to the pandemic. The large physician group Atrius Health, for example, has furloughed some workers and cut pay for many others.
Steward Health Care has announced “a targeted and temporary furlough program," but a company spokesman on Tuesday declined to say how many employees would be affected. Officials at the labor union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East said more than 200 of their members at Steward hospitals in Massachusetts would be furloughed.
At BMC, the temporary cuts apply mostly to administrative employees, not to front-line care providers, in departments where the workload has fallen dramatically, Walsh said in a telephone interview with The Boston Globe. “These are valued BMC employees we just don’t have any work for,” she said.
“We would have loved to have gotten through this as a team. We just can’t afford to do that.”
BMC typically is the destination of some 4,000 outpatient visits a day, but those mostly have stopped. Walsh said the hospital has lost about $5 million in revenue per week, and that the furloughs will make up a portion of that, less than $1 million per week.
Furloughed workers will not receive a regular paycheck, but they can use vacation and sick leave while they’re out of work. Hospital officials expect this will give 80 percent of the affected employees about one month of pay. They did not say how long the furloughs are expected to last.
Employees will continue to receive health benefits while on furlough, and they should be ready to come back to work within 24 hours if they’re needed, Walsh said. They can also volunteer for temporary assignments across the hospital.
Environmental services and dietary workers were not furloughed, Walsh added.
Labor unions that represent workers at BMC were upset by the changes.
“For workers, a furlough could make providing for their families and paying their bills more of a hardship. Even ‘temporary’ changes can have long-term effects,” said Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU.
State officials should provide immediate financial support for struggling health care providers to limit the impact on workers, Foley said in a statement.
The union has more than 3,000 members at BMC, including nurses, technicians, and clerical staff; about 200 union members expect to be furloughed.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association, which has 140 members at BMC, opposes all staff reductions during the pandemic.
“There’s no justification for furloughing any direct-care staff at this point,” said David Schildmeier, a union spokesman. “We are heading toward a surge in inpatient admissions.”
In another cost-cutting move at BMC, Walsh said she will give up her paycheck for at least a month and that other executives will receive reduced pay for the next three months.
The chief executive of the Beth Israel Lahey Health system, Dr. Kevin Tabb, said Monday that he would take half a salary for three months and that other executives would have their pay cut by 20 percent. Beth Israel Lahey Health officials said they were not cutting pay for rank-and-file employees, but some workers are on paid leave because their jobs have been sidelined for the time being.
Steward spokesman Darren Grubb said most of the Steward employees on furlough are in “non-patient facing" jobs.
“These are difficult steps taken to address a difficult moment,” he said in a statement. “While painful for us, many hospital systems around the country are taking the same steps.”
Partners HealthCare, which includes Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, and several community hospitals, is not planning any furloughs “at this present time,” said spokesman Rich Copp.
Normal business at all hospitals has been upended because of the coronavirus pandemic. BMC faces particular challenges because it serves an especially large share of low-income patients on the government program Medicaid, which reimburses hospitals at lower rates than private insurers do.
While much of the hospital campus is quieter than usual these days, the emergency department, inpatient floors, and intensive care beds are busy responding to patients with COVID-19.
By Tuesday, the hospital had admitted 62 patients with coronavirus, including 16 who were in intensive care. It was also treating 55 patients suspected to have the virus but awaiting test results. And 61 BMC employees so far have tested positive for the virus.