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Union says VA hospital workers able to telecommute told to come in

A steward for a union representing workers at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center says, “We’re basically just sounding the alarm.”

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When he announced his stay-at-home order Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told Illinoisans, “If you can work from home and aren’t already doing so, now is the time you must.”

But a local steward for a union representing some workers at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center said members who could follow Pritzker’s instruction are still being told to come to work. Jennifer Cushman, a local steward for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 789, said it’s a move that could put workers and patients at risk.

“All of the public officials, media, even our president — who is the head of the federal government for which we work — are emphasizing social distancing,” Cushman said. “And our hospital is not putting that into place.”

The hospital at 820 S. Damen released a statement Friday evening.

“Jesse Brown VA Medical Center’s highest priority is providing quality care to veterans,” it said. “Doing so requires that we maintain appropriate staffing levels for in-person care. We have not initiated our telework plan because we want to maintain the maximum amount of flexibility to meet what could potentially be a rapidly changing situation.”

Pritzker ordered all residents to stay home beginning Saturday in the most serious effort yet to combat the spread of the coronavirus in Illinois. The order lasts until April 7. “Essential services” are expected to remain open.

The order allows people to leave home to perform certain types of work, including for “healthcare and public health operations.”

The Jesse Brown VA Medical Center offers care to about 62,000 veterans in Chicago, Cook County and northwest Indiana, according to its website. Cushman said her union represents about 600 workers there. Though that number includes full-time doctors, she said, “most of them are outpatient clinicians.”

Those clinicians could largely be doing their work speaking to patients on the phone, Cushman said. Many of them have government-issued cellphones, she added. She also said clinicians are already handling appointments by phone — from the office.

Most do not work weekends, she said.

The workers have been told there is not enough “bandwidth in the telework system” to allow the workers in question to stay home, Cushman said. She countered that workers are typically given 48 to 72 hours to enter notes about patients into the network, and access to the system could be staggered.

“We’re just getting a lot of pushback instead of, ‘How can we figure this out?’” Cushman said.

She said the union filed an official request to bargain over the issue Monday. Since then, she said there have been informal conversations and talk of scheduling a meeting, but “there hasn’t been an official sit-down to really have our conversation about addressing the issues and responding to our specific concerns.” Now, she said, “We’re basically just sounding the alarm.

“We are frustrated, and it’s distressing, but ultimately working together to come up with good solutions is what we want to do.”