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Amid Pandemic, Hospitals Lay Off 1.4M Workers In April


An estimated 1.4 million health care workers lost their jobs in April. That's up from about 40,000 in March, according to numbers released Friday by the Labor Department. And this is happening as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country. NPR's Meg Anderson reports.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Fae-Marie Donathan has been a nurse for 42 years, and as the pandemic took hold in the U.S., Donathan expected her skills to be essential.

FAE-MARIE DONATHAN: I had figured I'd be in the middle of all this with everybody else. And I was thinking maybe I was going to have to worry about, when was I going to get a day off?

ANDERSON: It didn't happen that way. On April 16, she got a text from her supervisor. She was no longer going to be put on the schedule. She's a per diem nurse in the surgical ICU at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

DONATHAN: I was shocked. I was thinking totally the opposite, never, ever suspecting that I would be sitting at home, not getting any hours at work.

ANDERSON: A spokesperson for her hospital said they've, quote, "experienced financial challenges as a result of the pandemic." and they're not the only ones. The American Hospital Association has predicted that U.S. health systems will lose $200 billion through June. Most of that loss revenue is because hospitals are no longer performing elective procedures. And because hospitals aren't making very much money, they can't afford to keep everyone on staff.

TOM NICKELS: The only people who were coming into the hospitals were COVID-19 patients and emergencies.

ANDERSON: That's Tom Nickels. He's the executive vice president of the American Hospital Association. And he says hospitals are in a tight spot.

NICKELS: They're still having to have their institutions open. They're still caring for people who come in. They're still taking care of COVID-19. But that's an enormous amount of lost revenue.

ANDERSON: The Federal Government has distributed some of the $100 billion provider relief fund to hospitals. Nickels says it's too early to tell whether those funds will help retain workers. But the American Federation of Teachers, which is the second-largest nurses' union, says it's not enough. It's identified at least 200 hospitals nationwide that have cut worker hours. AFT president Randi Weingarten says she's never seen health care so affected by economic forces.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: But we've also never had a pandemic in modern history the likes of this one. And so it really is exposing all the problems with the market.

ANDERSON: She wants hospitals to think more creatively about roles instead of cutting hours.

WEINGARTEN: There should be a reallocation of work, thinking innovatively and resourcefully. Health care workers should be cross-trained to work in areas of a hospital that are overloaded, like ER or ICU.

ANDERSON: Donathan, the nurse working in Cincinnati, has filed for unemployment but hasn't gotten money yet. Her husband is also a nurse, and his paychecks are smaller now, too.

WEINGARTEN: We've cut back on a lot of things, you know? There are no extras in our house. We're doing whatever it is we can do.

ANDERSON: When asked what she'll do if this continues for a long time...

DONATHAN: I don't know. And that scares me.

ANDERSON: Meg Anderson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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