When Caroline Gurgel walked through the doors of the Intensive Care Unit, she saw her co-workers surrounding the first confirmed COVID-19 infected patient at UF Health Shands Hospital.
Gurgel, an as-needed patient care assistant at Shands, was preparing to work more once the pandemic spread to Gainesville. But a week after the first patient arrived, Gurgel's schedule was completely cleared.
She didn’t work for two months.
In Executive Order 20-72, Gov. Ron DeSantis prohibited hospitals from performing non-emergency procedures from March 20 to May 4 in an effort to conserve Personal Protective Equipment like masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to a decline in total revenue for hospitals, which resulted in fewer hours and higher rates of unemployment for medical professionals.
Gurgel normally works 36 hours a week. But as a pro re nata (PRN) or as-needed medical assistant, she’s only required to work one shift a month. She and her PRN co-workers were among the first to lose hours in March, she said.
With no income to pay rent, she had to move home with her parents in Polk County.
“I'm blessed with parents that can feed me when I don't have the money for food, but I know there's plenty of people who don't,” she said.
Gurgel said she texted her manager every week, anxious to come back to work. She kept in touch with her co-workers who struggled to pay rent as well.
The hardest part of not working during the beginning moments of the pandemic was missing out on supporting her team, Gurgel said.
“It was heartbreaking seeing my team working during this terrifying time and not being able to work with them,” she said. “That's my family.”
Ken Garcia, UF Health communications director, confirmed in an email that some Shands employees had their hours reduced. Still, no one has been fired due to the pandemic, he said, and hiring has continued as needed.
He added that Shands has lost an estimated $50 million to $125 million throughout the pandemic. He wrote that he expects things to return to normal now that the hospital is once again performing non-emergency procedures.
Shands employees impacted by reduced hours were able to receive up to 80 hours of paid time off or PTO, money given to employees during times of absence, Garcia said.
“We implemented a PTO leave-share program, which allowed staff to donate PTO hours to impacted employees,” he wrote. “Thanks to our employees’ generosity, soon we will be distributing donated PTO hours to impacted employees who applied.”
However, Gurgel is ineligible for PTO because she works as-needed and receives no work benefits. Because she was still technically an employee at Shands, she couldn’t file for unemployment either.
“It was definitely a very hurtful two months for a lot of people,” she said. “I'm still trying to make up for it.”
Heather Towne was a PRN nurse at Select Medical, a company that rehabilitates patients after they leave the ICU. Before the pandemic, Towne said she usually treated patients three times a week.
In the two months since COVID-19 spread, she’s worked only seven shifts.
She often received phone calls from her employer canceling her shift just an hour before she was expected to be at the hospital, she said.
“I still have to pay my bills,” Towne said. “I'm a single mom with two kids, and my landlord is not happy with me right now.”
During the weeks she barely worked, Towne said she began to look at different job opportunities in nursing. She considered applying to become a nurse in the military or moving to New York City to work as an emergency relief nurse.
Norman Alvarez, one of Towne’s supervisors, said Select Medical has fewer patients due to the almost six-week cancellation of non-emergency procedures. Fewer patients means fewer shifts for nurses, he added.
Like Shands, Select Medical employees who have lost work are given PTO, Alvarez said. But like Gurgel, Towne said she was not able to receive this compensation as a PRN nurse.
She tried to apply for the GNVCares About Neighbors grant, a program financed by the city to assist Gainesville residents who have experienced a loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She didn’t get that, either, she said. Human Resources at Select Medical didn’t give her the required documentation verifying her reduced hours in time for the application’s May 17 deadline, Towne said.
Liz Rosenlund, human resources manager at Select Medical, said she did not know of this instance and said the company doesn't deny any employment verification.
Towne recently graduated from Chamberlain University in Jacksonville with a degree in nurse practitioning. In her search for more work, she interviewed with other companies and was recently offered a job at the Neurology Center of Excellence in Wildwood, a city an hour south of Gainesville.
She took it.