Helping Hospital Workers at the Epicenter

Beth Cooper

Beth Cooper ’05 FOUND HERSELF AT THE EPICENTER OF THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK in New York City this spring. She is the director of employee and labor relations at NYU Langone Health. The medical center had almost all COVID-19 patients in the hospital at the height of the outbreak. “Every day was a new day. We’d have certain expectations and then new data or information would come in,” she said.

One of Cooper’s main jobs was to provide advice and support to the staff during this difficult time. Due to the increasing influx of patients, one of the most frequently discussed topics concerned the best way to move staff to new shifts and assignments in the newly created COVID-19 units. Nurses and other staff who worked in non-ICU areas, for example, were asked to work in a different building, doing things they’d never done before, with new colleagues and managers, which required training.

But what Cooper remembers most is managing countless schedule changes. Instead of giving workers 30 days’ notice about their shift changes, the employees were given a few days’ notice. As a result, these employees had to make changes in their personal lives during an already stressful time. For example, many employees had to find new child care arrangements, which became even more difficult when schools closed.

“We had some resources for staff to take advantage of, because they were essential workers. There were resources in Manhattan, but a lot of our employees live elsewhere,” Cooper said. So she helped her colleagues find child care locations that were still open where they lived.

Schedules were also changed to “minimize travel and exposure” to the virus in the community. Some people worked three long days a week to manage child care responsibilities and reduce their commute time on public transportation.

Much of the job required Cooper to stay calm and communicate clearly. “People were working with new supervisors or on new shifts or in new buildings. We tried to keep communication flowing.”

Sometimes people called her because they were upset, having just supported patients in need who were not able to have their family members by their side.

“People dealt with very trying situations every day. Sometimes people just needed to vent—just hearing what their day was like—especially when the [patient’s] family couldn’t be there and they are the last person to be with someone before they passed.” She knew which resources to recommend in those cases.

But she also had to stay mentally healthy, making time for 30 minutes of yoga most nights. Now she’s working on handling travel and vacation questions and other ensuing issues. Also, she makes sure essential workers are aware of the latest New York State travel restrictions regarding their return to work, such as the need to undergo a COVID-19 test before returning to the hospital.

She is also shifting some of her focus to a possible second wave. “We’re all aware of how fast the situation may change. We’re developing plans in case this happens again. At least now, we have a better understanding of what works."

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