Veterans hospital employees fear new work-from-home ban will endanger community

The hospital’s new director, James Doelling, sent an email to Hines VA staffers calling for “all hands on deck” after many employees had already been working from home for weeks.

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Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, 5000 Fifth Ave., south of Maywood.

Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, located at 5000 5th Ave. in west suburban Hines.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

Employees at the Chicago-area Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital are concerned about a new “all hands on deck” directive that would send employees who have already been working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak back into the field.

The workers include social workers, dietitians, psychiatrists and more at the hospital whose services began shifting to telehealth practices when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 began mid-March.

Some — like a social worker and mother of a 3-year-old — started working from home weeks ago while others began teleworking as recently as last week.

But that seemingly came to an abrupt end last week when the hospital’s new director, James Doelling, sent an email to Hines VA staffers calling for “all hands on deck” as the center prepared for a surge of veterans in need of services.

The social worker and mother, who asked not to be identified because she feared retribution, said she and her colleagues were told by supervisors that all telework was being pulled.

”I’m concerned as a clinical provider that we’re going to be risking the lives of veterans and employees as they create this COVID-19 petri dish at the hospital for no reason,” she said.

Doelling, who started as Hines’ CEO and director at the end of March, did not respond to requests for comment.

The social worker said most services would still be offered online because of the stay-at-home order, so “we’d be working from our offices telephonically still.”

She said the hospital has a day care center for its employees’ children, but that would remain closed, leaving her with little options for her toddler.

”I have to use my benefit time to take care of my child because I have no choice,” she said. “While all the veterans on my caseload suffer because now they have no contact from me. It also places more strain on my teammates.”

Germaine Clarno, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 781, which represents workers at Hines VA Hospital, said the new order is bringing employees in “unnecessarily” and putting everyone at the hospital at risk.

”They’re being told to come into Hines, sit altogether in one office all day, and they can’t even go see the patients in the wards because of precautionary measures,” Clarno said.

The union leader added that if the hospital experiences a sudden surge in veterans, its workers are “prepared to be there within an hour.”

An online petition to Doelling requesting that he not ban telework at the VA center was created Friday and had more than 400 signatures by Sunday evening.

Many of the signatures were from workers who claimed their jobs could be done telephonically and said they were concerned about putting veterans at risk by coming into the facility.

“Call us in when you truly need us and we will be healthy and ready to respond,” one person wrote.

“While my department specifically is required to be present for patients this isn’t the case for most of mental health who have been able to provide excellent care via tele-medicine and telephone for years,” another employee wrote.

Todd Mayer, a social worker at one of Hines’ community-based clinics in Oak Lawn, said he’s worked from home every Friday for the last year because the office was getting too crowded.

“So there’s a precedent that says I can do my job teleworking,” Mayer said. “Up until this week, it hasn’t been a problem.”

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said Sunday evening during the White House’s coronavirus task force briefing that the Department of Veterans Affairs was instructed to be “as aggressive as possible in response to the virus crisis.”

He said he’s ordered hospitals to begin preparing hospital beds to aide in the crisis.

“We’re in this fight not only for our veterans but for the people of the U.S.,” he said.

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